Steve August 19, 2020
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Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff who was recently featured in a political ad from Republican Voters Against Trump, told MSNBC on Wednesday that President Tweety McTreason asked him and other officials if the U.S. could swap Greenland for Puerto Rico because, in Trump’s words, “Puerto Rico was dirty and the people were poor.

The exchange happened on August 2018 before DHS officials went on a disaster recovery trip to Puerto Rico, which had been devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, according to Taylor.

“I did not take it as a joke,” said Taylor. “The president expressed deep animus towards the Puerto Rican people behind the scenes. These are people who are recovering from the worst disaster we’ve seen in our lifetimes and he is their president. He should be standing by them, not trying to sell them off to a foreign country.”

Peter Brown, the White House Special Representative for Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery, told NBC News that he has “never heard the president say anything of that sort.”

Brown said that in all his interactions with Trump since February, when he was assigned to work with Puerto Rico, Trump “has been supportive of the unprecedented relief and recovery effort the federal government has launched for Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico has been facing a cascade of crises over the last few years as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria — which became the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years. It resulted in the deaths of at least 2,975 people and was the third-costliest hurricane. The island is also working on getting out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Trump has not yet publicly acknowledged or mourned the thousands who died during the hurricane’s aftermath in 2017. Over the past few years, Trump has also doubled down on multiple occasions on his previous public comments opposing disaster funding for Puerto Rico.

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Last year, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans marched in the largest protest in its recent history to oust then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló over a political scandal involving him and a dozen members of his Cabinet.

Puerto Rico was hit by a sequence of seismic events that started on Dec. 28, triggering multiple strong earthquakes that brought down hundreds of homes, schools and small businesses in January. Since then, over 9,800 tremors have been registered on the island.

Puerto Rico is currently seeing an uptick in coronavirus cases and deaths. The island of 3.2 million people reported nearly 12,500 confirmed coronavirus cases Wednesday, more than 15,500 probable ones and at least 356 deaths, according to Puerto Rico’s Health Department.

Allocated funds, but communities have seen little money

So far, the federal government has allocated nearly $46 billion to help the island recover from its multiple disasters. But most of the money, specifically funds for housing and infrastructure relief, have not made their way to communities in the island. Puerto Rico has only received nearly $17 billion, according to FEMA’s Recovery Support Function Leadership Group.

Last month, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor acknowledged that the Puerto Rican island of Vieques still doesn’t have a functioning hospital while thousands of other Puerto Ricans continue to wait for their homes to be rebuilt almost three years after Hurricane Maria. In a 2018 ​after-action report, FEMA also acknowledged agency failures in areas such as staffing and coordination.

HUD allocated historic amounts of funding for the island in the area of housing, infrastructure and energy, close to $20 billion. Puerto Rico has received less than 8 percent, so far.

Brown said Trump “has been very supportive of the work of big federal agencies such as FEMA and HUD” as well as agencies that “we normally don’t think about during disaster recovery” such as the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Education, among others, as the island recovers from all of its crises.

Democratic lawmakers have blamed the funding delay on additional restrictions the federal housing agency has placed on Puerto Rico, citing concerns over “alleged corruption” and “fiscal irregularities” as well as “Puerto Rico’s capacity to manage these funds.”

“Corruption diverts valuable resources from the people of Puerto Rico,” said Brown, adding that the processes and oversight mechanisms that are in place are designed to ensure that the federal aid “turns into meaningful relief for the people of Puerto Rico.”

But recent HUD audits on local government’s management of disaster grants suggest that its reasons for stalling funds to Puerto Rico don’t fully hold up.

The audits found that Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida need to have a better systems for requesting and monitoring federal grants to rebuild after the 2017 hurricanes that devastated them. While all three U.S. jurisdictions had similar issues, HUD only delayed Puerto Rico’s funding process.

Brown, who is visiting Puerto Rico this week, said his priorities for Puerto Rico’s recovery include strengthening the island’s “foundational infrastructures” to ensure reliable electricity access, clean water and resilient communications towers.

He is also working on reviving the island’s pharmaceutical industry after the COVID-19 pandemic “revealed the vulnerability” of the American medical supply chain, which is heavily reliant on companies overseas.

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Image: Nicole AcevedoNicole Acevedo

Nicole Acevedo is a reporter for NBC News Digital. She reports, writes and produces stories for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com.

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