Democrats have been worrying for days that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s refusal to resign amid protests in San Juan would lead to fresh attacks on the U.S. territory from Donald Trump.
On Thursday morning, the tweet went out.
“A lot of bad things are happening in Puerto Rico,” Trump wrote. “The Governor is under siege, the Mayor of San Juan is a despicable and incompetent person who I wouldn’t trust under any circumstance, and the United States Congress foolishly gave 92 Billion Dollars for hurricane relief, much of which was squandered away or wasted, never to be seen again.”
The message from the president came a week after offensive chat messages from the governor and his advisers were published on the same day that the FBI indicted Puerto Rico’s former secretary of education and head of health insurance administration on corruption charges.
An hour after Trump’s tweet, Rosselló said he had no plans to resign.
And his refusal gives Trump the narrative that he wants, according to Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat with oversight of Puerto Rico’s finances on Capitol Hill.
“I think this whole issue now with the arrests and the ongoing investigation, the protests, feeds into the Trump narrative where they say, ‘We can’t trust them, we shouldn’t send money,’” said Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who leads House Natural Resources Committee. “The second-class status has been reaffirmed by this administration and now they have a narrative.”
Grijalva is the only member of Congress calling for Rosselló’s ouster, though other lawmakers from both parties have expressed disdain for his actions and support for the ongoing protests. A slew of celebrities with ties to Puerto Rico, including actor Lin Manuel Miranda and Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, have also called for Rosselló leave office.
“I think that the statements made by the governor are extremely concerning,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., in an interview with the Miami Herald. “I think that the demonstrations in Puerto Rico show how much he has undermined people’s faith in the current administration.”
But Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican who was born in New York and represents thousands of Puerto Ricans in the Bronx and Queens, isn’t calling for Rosselló to go.
“One of the issues that I’ve heard brought up in terms of calling for resignation is the idea of sovereignty and the idea that Rosselló’s resignation should not come from pressure from D.C. but that it should come from people on the island,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I’ve been kind of weighing that but I absolutely think that his statements are unacceptable and it would certainly undermine faith in that administration.”
Trump’s tweet on Puerto Rico included the longstanding falsehood that the U.S. territory received $92 billion in federal assistance after Hurricane Maria. About $42 billion has been approved by Congress for recovery, but the government has only promised to spend $20.6 billion and $13.6 billion has been spent so far, according to FEMA.
Florida Rep. Darren Soto, the state’s first Puerto Rican member of Congress, said Trump’s messaging and Rossello’s actions distract from work being done in Congress to alleviate the island’s debt crisis, which threatened essential services on the island years before Hurricane Maria wiped out the territory’s power grid.
“Apparently President Trump’s lie about Puerto Rico getting $91 billion never gets old,” Soto said.
He said there is broad support for his bill that allocates $14 billion to fix Medicaid in U.S. territories with added provisions to prevent corruption. The bill received unanimous support in a committee vote this week.
But that sort of policy detail gets lost when Trump tweets, as he did on Thursday, that Puerto Rico’s leaders are “corrupt, & robbing the U.S. Government blind” while Rosselló’s education and health secretaries are being handcuffed and thousands of protesters spar with police in San Juan.
Even though most lawmakers won’t call for Rossello to go, they say the recent events heighten the need for federal oversight over Puerto Rico’s debt situation through PROMESA, a 2016 law that created an unelected board to oversee debt restructuring and infrastructure projects. Critics say PROMESA effectively cedes control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal situation to the financial interests of wealthy bondholders.
“When you have PROMESA, when you have the federal government, when you have Rossello when you have lobbyists, all of these folks kind of involved at the very top, it’s unsurprising the results that have come out,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Rosselló apparently isn’t happy with the oversight. In one of the leaked messages, Rosselló said the PROMESA board should “go f--- yourself.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the chief negotiator of the law that established PROMESA, declined to weigh in on Rosselló’s future, but said the governor needs to stop fighting the PROMESA board through litigation, especially in light of recent corruption charges brought forward by the FBI against former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration head Ángela Ávila-Marrero.
“The indictments indicate a significant problem, which is what we noticed and why we established the PROMESA board in the first place,” Bishop said.
Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, the first Florida lawmaker to call for Rossello’s ouster after seeing the protests and talking to Puerto Rican constituents, said the president is using Rossello’s conduct to make an unrelated and false claim on hurricane relief meant to stir up his base. Eskamani represents an Orlando-area district near the state’s largest Puerto Rican communities.
“Trump these days is more concerned about inflaming a racist base,” Eskamani said. “I think that his statements and his remarks are irrelevant when it comes to solving the problem. They’re designed to attempt to prove a point and provide furor between racial lines.”
Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott won’t say whether they think it’s time for Rosselló to go but Scott did say recent events showed him that closer scrutiny of Puerto Rico’s use of federal funds is merited.
“What’s frustrating for me is you think about these poor families, these poor families want jobs and want education and you sit there and get these people being indicted for fraud,” said Scott, who visited Puerto Rico 10 times since Hurricane Maria destroyed the territory’s power grid. “But It’s a decision he has to make. I’m not calling for him to step down.”
Rubio, who publicly sparred with Rosselló over statehood after the governor criticized him for the 2017 tax bill’s effects on Puerto Rico, declined to weigh in on calls for Rosselló’s resignation.
“I won’t comment on that because I don’t vote in Puerto Rico. He’s not accountable to me,” Rubio said. “I can tell you that my job, I believe, is to ensure that the people of Puerto Rico are not punished for the wrongdoing of politicians.”
Grijalva, the congressman from Arizona who faced some criticism when he called for Rosselló’s resignation after the FBI indictments but before the leaked chat messages, said he hasn’t heard any complaints about his stance in recent days. He said Puerto Ricans have a massive distrust of both the federal and territorial governments, and the latest developments do nothing to help that perception.
“There was almost an unanimity of opinion that they didn’t know who to trust in terms of their own central government and the federal government. This is a pent-up frustration of them feeling that they’ve been abandoned.”