WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump defended his record on Puerto Rico on Thursday, claiming he has taken care of the U.S. territory better than “any living human being.”
Trump, who has long been criticized for his administration’s handling of Hurricane Maria’s impact to the island in 2017, appeared to be responding to comments made by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to CNN where he issued a stern warning to Trump’s reported questions about slashing disaster funding for the island.
“If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth,” Rosselló told CNN in an interview. “It would be a mistake to confuse courtesy with courage.”
While leaving the White House en route to a political rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Trump told reporters he’s given millions to Puerto Rico and claimed elected leaders were mismanaging the funds.
“Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being and I think the people of Puerto Rico understand it,” Trump said. “You have the mayor of San Juan that, frankly, doesn’t know what she’s doing and the governor, they have to spend the money wisely. They don’t know how to spend the money and they’re not spending it wisely.”
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He said the administration has given more money – $91 billion – to the island than they’d ever received in the past.
“But I’m giving them more money than they’ve ever got and, frankly, the people of Puerto Rico, I really have a great relationship with them and I think, when it comes time, they really do appreciate it,” the president added.
Rosselló told CNN he wouldn’t be bullied by the White House as he continues to press for disaster relief assistance tied to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 and had impacts that linger over a year and a half later.
The rift between Trump and Puerto Rico grew this week when, in a meeting with Senate Republicans, the president again questioned the amount of funding the island was receiving for disaster relief, CNN and the Washington Post reported.
During the meeting, Trump questioned why Puerto Rico received more than $90 billion in aid, the two outlets reported. However, Congress has appropriated only $20 billion in Department of Housing and Urban Development disaster funds for Puerto Rico, and only $1.5 billion have been approved for spending, the outlets report.
“It’s unfortunate that we are having to hear this. These statements lack empathy, but more so they lack the true facts of the matter,” Rosselló told CNN.
Trump has repeatedly defended his administration’s response to the devastation caused by Hurrican Maria, which was a Category 5 storm when it pummeled the island and killed about 3,000 people. The storm has continued to affect the island and left many without electricity for more than a year.
In September, Trump questioned the death toll from the storm and accused Democrats of being behind the massive number, which was revealed in a study commissioned by Puerto Rico’s government.
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“This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
Later that month, Trump called his administration’s efforts there an “incredible unsung success” and said, “I actually think it was one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about.”
Trump also took heat after he visited Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Sept. 20, 2017, storm. The president tossed paper towels to Puerto Rican residents at a local relief center, angering storm victims and others who saw his actions as insensitive.
Contributing: David Jackson, Ryan Miller and John Fritze