(Bloomberg) -- Many Puerto Ricans were fuming Friday after reports emerged that the White House may raid disaster-relief funds approved by Congress last year to fund a security wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump is considering a declaration of emergency to bypass Congress to fund the barrier. The White House directed the Army Corps of Engineers to examine a February 2018 funding measure to see what money could be diverted under such a declaration, a congressional aide with knowledge of the matter said Thursday. The money would come from $13.9 billion of Corps funds, according to NBC, which cited three U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter. That could include $2.4 billion for California and $2.5 billion for Puerto Rico reconstruction, NBC reported.
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria obliterated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, killing an estimated 2,975 people and leaving millions with little or no power for months. Federal aid allocated by lawmakers has started to dribble in, but the recovery remains tenuous at best. At the same time, the U.S. commonwealth remains plagued by a weak job market and its $120 billion in unpayable debts.
“The wall has turned into his only focus,” said Ana Groennou, a 70-year-old retired former marketing professional living in San Juan. “We still have people living under tarps. Puerto Rico needs that money.”
Trump’s sympathy for the island has been intermittent. After Maria’s landfall, he was slow to react publicly; when he visited, he lightheartedly tossed paper towels at an aid station; he complained repeatedly about reconstruction costs; and he rejected without evidence an exhaustive independent audit of the death count. Moreover, he has long sought to portray, again with no evidence, the island’s government as gaming the recovery system for infrastructure money.
Trump found little support in Puerto Rico for his latest apparent wall gambit. Governor Ricardo Rossello said the move would fund the barrier "on the pain and suffering of U.S. citizens who have endured tragedy and loss through a natural disaster." He also called for Trump to clarify his position -- because the information came from unidentified sources -- on the rebuilding of Puerto Rico and other recent disaster zones, including California, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The prospect of an influx of federal aid triggered a rally in the price of Puerto Rico’s bonds last year on speculation it would provide a much-needed economic jolt and allow investors to recover more than they’d previously expected from the island’s bankruptcy. On Friday, creditors shrugged off the potential threat -- at least for now. Prices on the commonwealth’s benchmark general obligation bonds were little changed, trading around 54 cents on the dollar.
“If they’re going to take funds away from Puerto Rico that would be negative for them to be able to come up with a solution on restructuring their debt,” said Catherine Stienstra, who oversees $18.5 billion as head of municipal bond investments at Columbia Threadneedle Investments in Boston.
But the chances of such a raid occurring remained uncertain. Cristina Diaz, a 43-year-old Puerto Rican hotel worker who studied in Texas, said she was indignant but also doubtful that Trump could pull off such a maneuver.
"I lived in Texas, and Trump’s gripes about immigrants aren’t accurate," she said. "It’s infuriating that they would suggest something like this, but at the same time, it doesn’t surprise me."
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a regular Trump foil, called the move "the egotistical response of a man who gets his way or brings everyone down."
Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in the House -- a Republican who has supported Trump’s wall -- also blasted the president.
"As resident commissioner, I vehemently reject playing this game with our pain and hopes," Gonzalez Colon said in a press release. "Congress approved and President Trump put his signature on this allocation of money with an express purpose, and our people don’t deserve this treatment."
(Updates in seventh paragraph with bond prices.)
--With assistance from Martin Z. Braun.
To contact the reporters on this story: Yalixa Rivera in San Juan at firstname.lastname@example.org;Jonathan Levin in Miami at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org, Michael B. Marois
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