The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on the divisions among White House staffers on the best strategy for the ongoing government shutdown, and it included an odd quote from one of Donald Trump’s aides.
“Everyone wants to know what the president is doing,” an unnamed senior White House official said. “Let me tell you what he’s not doing. He’s not going to Puerto Rico.”
If it seems like we’ve heard this talking point a lot this week, it’s not your imagination. On Tuesday, a reporter asked the president about the status of negotiations with congressional Democrats. “I’ve been here all weekend,” Trump replied. “A lot of the Democrats were in Puerto Rico, celebrating something. I don’t know, maybe they’re celebrating the shutdown.”
I think we’re supposed to believe that Democrats blew off negotiations to have fun in the sun in January. In reality, there were no negotiations to blow off and the trip had a substantive purpose. As the Washington Post reported, the trip, months in the making, was designed to offer a congressional delegation the latest information on Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.
According to members who participated, the three-day event featured informational sessions on the damage from the 2017 hurricane, meetings with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, presentations on the controversial oversight board created to meet the island’s bond obligations, and information on how residents of territories can’t access many of the government services available to residents of the 50 states.
There was a special “Hamilton” show as part of the trip, but members paid their own way, and the proceeds went to a local non-profit.
So why has this become such an important line of attack for Team Trump? Does it have something to do with the president’s attitude toward the island?
President Trump in late September grew incensed after hearing, erroneously, that Puerto Rico was using the emergency money to pay off its debt, according to two people with direct knowledge of Trump’s thinking.
Trump told then-White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and then-Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that he did not want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico, because he thought the island was misusing the money and taking advantage of the government, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive internal deliberations. Instead, he wanted more of the money to go to Texas and Florida, the person said.
“POTUS was not consolable about this,” the person said.
I realize the White House is on the defensive as the public blames Trump and his party for the shutdown, but it’s hard to imagine this having a significant effect on Americans’ attitudes.