President Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the US territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Declaring the US territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a ‘‘disaster before hurricanes,’’ Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that relief workers will not stay ‘‘forever.’’
The House responded on Thursday, approving a $36.5 billion aid package that would provide hurricane and wildfire relief funding while bailing out the financially troubled National Flood Insurance Program.
The aid package would also help Puerto Rico’s financially beleaguered government avoid running out of cash in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The disaster package, now awaiting consideration in the Senate, would be the second installment of aid money that Congress has approved in response to this year’s hurricanes, after a $15.3 billion relief measure in September.
With the tab now more than $50 billion, lawmakers warn that much more money will still be needed.
Three weeks after Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million people, remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and commerce is slow, with many businesses closed.
Trump on Thursday sought to shame the territory for its own plight. He tweeted, ‘‘Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.’’ And he quoted Sharyl Attkisson, a television journalist, as saying, ‘‘Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.’’
He also tweeted: ‘‘We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!’’
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló responded with his own tweet, saying Puerto Ricans were seeking the support ‘‘any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation.’’
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of the capital city, San Juan, who has been feuding publicly with Trump, strongly condemned the president Thursday in a tweet calling him a ‘‘Hater in Chief’’ and in a lengthy statement sent to reporters and members of Congress. She said the president’s actions ‘‘are unbecoming of a leader of the free world,’’ and she argued that he ‘‘is simply incapable of understanding the contributions, the sacrifices and the commitment to democratic values that Puerto Ricans have shown over decades.’’
Cruz pleaded with ‘‘every American that has love, and not hate in their hearts, to stand with Puerto Rico and let this President know we WILL NOT BE LEFT TO DIE.’’
The White House issued a statement Thursday committing for now ‘‘the full force of the US government’’ to the Puerto Rico recovery.
‘‘Our job in any disaster-affected location is to help the community respond and recover from that disaster,’’ White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. ‘‘We continue to do so with the full force of the US government and its resources in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and other affected areas. Successful recoveries do not last forever; they should be as swift as possible to help people resume their normal lives. We are committed to helping Puerto Rico. Our administration is working with Governor Rosselló and Congress to identify the best fiscally responsible path forward.’’
Trump has been criticized by many for his response to pleas for aid from Puerto Rico. The president has tried to portray the territory as in full recovery mode and has voiced frustration with what he considers mismanagement by local officials.
During a visit last week, the president tossed rolls of paper towels at local residents as if shooting baskets, drawing scorn from local leaders. He also complained that the recovery efforts had ‘‘thrown our budget a little out of whack,’’ and noted that the death toll was lower than the ‘‘real catastrophe’’ of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005.
Rosselló warned congressional leaders over the weekend that the US territory is ‘‘on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.’’
The legislation set for a vote allows up to $4.9 billion in direct loans to local governments in a bid to ease Puerto Rico’s financial crunch.
Without congressional action, the territory may not be able to make its payroll or pay vendors by the end of the month.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said that Puerto Rico must eventually ‘‘stand on its own two feet,’’ but that the federal government needs to continue to respond to the humanitarian crisis.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, tweeted: ‘‘There is still devastation, Americans are still dying. FEMA needs to stay until the job is done.’’