Trump says he admires Puerto Ricans. They ask, where’s the proof?

A damaged Puerto Rican national flag spray painted with the words "Together as One" hangs from the facade of a business, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A damaged Puerto Rican national flag spray painted with the words "Together as One" hangs from the facade of a business, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. AP

“I grew up in New York,” President Donald Trump boasts, “so I know many people from Puerto Rico. I know many Puerto Ricans. And these are great people, and we have to help them.”

But here and in the halls of Congress, Puerto Ricans don’t recall him having a particular affinity for or ties to the predominately Democratic-leaning community.

“There are no footprints that are permanent in terms of his relations with the Puerto Rican or Latino community,” said Jaime Estades, an attorney and New York political consultant who is president of the Latino Leadership Institute.

“In general, I don’t think he has the sensibilities. Yes, he has met Puerto Ricans, he grew up in the city. But to have a permanent relationship? I don’t think there are pictures of Trump with Puerto Ricans, unless they’re with J-Lo.”

Trump’s hands-off stance towards the devastated island’s effort to recover from Hurricane Maria has some questioning whether his distance from his city’s Puerto Rican community explains why he’s seemed more concerned about protests by National Football League players than the island’s desperate needs.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, mostly Democrats, have blasted Trump for what they consider his slow response to the storm. Large sections of Puerto Rico are without power, water, food or medical services more than a week after the storm roared through the U.S. territory as a Category Four hurricane.

Anger over Trump’s response spiked following a Monday night tweet by the president. He wrote about hurricane devastation but also mentioned the island’s debt crisis.

That was no surprise to many of his fellow New Yorkers. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Democrat, said Trump has never had much interaction with Puerto Ricans in the five boroughs.

"Nothing that I am aware of," said Velazquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House. "I just wonder, when did he learn that Puerto Ricans are American citizens?"

Trump, who has made no secret of his love for parades — he boasted on the campaign trail that he was grand marshal of the 40th Salute to Israel Parade in 2004 — is not known to ever have attended the annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade that winds down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue — in front of Trump Tower — every June.

"There was no connection," Velazquez said. "And I participate in every event. Never saw him."

A number of politicians, corporate sponsors and groups including firefighters and police officers bailed out of the parade this year after organizers honored controversial Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera. He was released from prison after former president Barack Obama commuted his 55-year sentence for charges including plotting to overthrow the U.S. government.

In years past, however, the parade has been popular with politicians and those aspiring for higher office, including Robert Kennedy, a U.S. senator from New York who once marched. Most New York mayors have participated, as did Hillary Clinton as a U.S. senator from New York.

The White House defended the administration’s response to Puerto Rico’s plight on Thursday with White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert saying Trump has instructed his team to “pull out all the stops” and deliver as much federal relief to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as it could muster. Trump plans to visit Puerto Rico Tuesday.

But leading Puerto Rican figures remained wary that Trump--and the rest of the country-- understand the gravity of the island’s crisis.

Hector Figueroa is the influential president of a Service Employees International Union chapter that represents property service workers in New York and all over the East Coast, including many with ties to Puerto Rico. He said that he wasn't aware of personal relationships Trump had with the Puerto Rican community.

The Trump Organization, however, is a different story.

"I don't remember him being that involved in the community. I know the Trump Organization does have roots in the city, in the community," he said. "The Trump Organization is one of our employers, it employs a large number of Puerto Rican workers."

Figueroa, who is still waiting to hear from family members on the island, said he hoped Trump would "open his heart" as he focused attention on the crisis there.

"I am hoping, as he turns his attention to what is happening on the island, he looks at the devastation, he would listen to the voices [there], respond to the governor's requests," Figueroa said.

Trump did work with one high-profile Puerto Rican elected official, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. on the development of a golf course in the borough’s Throgs Neck section that opened in 2015.

However, a Diaz spokesman said the relationship between the billionaire and the borough president soured because of comments Trump made insulting Mexicans when he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Diaz has boycotted the golf course ever since.

Stu Loeser, who served as a longtime press secretary to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, didn’t dispute Trump’s insistence that he knows “many people” from Puerto Rico--but he did question the relevance of that statement.

“It’s impossible to live in New York and not know a lot of people whose families come from Puerto Rico,” Loeser said. “On the other hand, that's as absurd as saying... 'I've lived in New York most of my life, I know lots of people who come from Italian families.' Of course you do. So what?"

Trump may have further alienated some Puerto Ricans in New York when he lambasted the cast of the Broadway hit “Hamilton” after one actor expressed fears about the incoming administration to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence during a performance in November 2016.

The show was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who along with his father, prominent consultant Luis Miranda Jr., “are in many ways one of the First Families of the Puerto Rican community,” Loeser said.

“The fact that one of President-elect Trump's earliest fights was with the cast of Hamilton certainly didn't set him off on the right foot," he added.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck