At a White House meeting in June, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello made a brief pitch to Donald Trump in support of statehood for his territory. The president responded by suggesting that if the governor could “guarantee” that the island would elect two Republican senators, statehood would become “a very quick process.”
In fairness, the president appeared to be joking, but the humor was rooted in truth: Republicans aren’t likely to support statehood for the territory if it’s expected to vote Democratic. Trump’s joke, such as it was, offered a hint into the president’s thinking, and his position wasn’t exactly principled.
Yesterday, as the Washington Post reported, Trump elaborated on the subject, but not in a way that inspires confidence.
President Trump said in a radio interview broadcast Monday that he is an “absolute no” on statehood for Puerto Rico, citing his running feud with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a critic of the federal response to Hurricane Maria.
“With the mayor of San Juan as bad as she is and as incompetent as she is, Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing,” Trump told host Geraldo Rivera in an interview conducted Sunday with WTAM Radio in Cleveland, later calling Cruz “a horror show.”
At this point, we could have an extended conversation defending Mayor Cruz’s competence, but let’s not miss the forest for the trees: Trump is a “hard no” on Puerto Rican statehood because a local mayor hurt his feelings.
Ricardo Rossello, who’s been playing a careful political game, and who’s received considerable praise from the White House, understandably saw the president’s comments as an unfortunate setback.
“This is an insensitive, disrespectful comment to over 3 million Americans who live in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico,” Rosselló said in a statement, which went on to criticize “the unequal and colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.”
The debate over statehood is nuanced and complex. At this point, it’s an argument Trump appears woefully unprepared for.