It was arguably the biggest scandal and outrage of Donald Trump’s young, already scandal-ridden presidency.
There was a large American body count piling up, along with mounting reports and questions about the administration’s mismanagement of the relief efforts, with few answers forthcoming. With the bodies barely cold, the president instead launched sustained, petty public-relations warfare against politicians who he felt had crossed him and, at times, appeared to go to war with the victims of the storms.
It was “Trump’s Katrina,” and then some.
Now, a year and a half after hurricanes Irma and María ravaged Puerto Rico, the island is grappling with a whole new round of crises, Trump has been telling his GOP allies that Puerto Rico is receiving too much assistance from the federal government, and lawmakers leading an investigation into what happened after the storms are being stalled.
Some Democratic lawmakers are all but accusing the Trump administration of stonewalling them in their inquiries.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who chairs the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on government operations, told The Daily Beast he still hasn’t seen key documents from the administration detailing its response to the hurricanes. He said the committee should be prepared to use its subpoena power to obtain those documents—and, if necessary, to hold officials in contempt of Congress if they don’t comply.
“This is not an academic exercise,” said Connolly. “People lost their lives.”
At a lunch Tuesday with Republican senators, Trump once again revived his complaints about the disaster aid spent on the U.S. territory, according to The Washington Post. The president reportedly complained that too much money had been given to the island, compared to what South Carolina and Texas had gotten, following their respective hurricane damage.
The remarks came as Democratic lawmakers are accusing Trump and his administration of dragging their feet on recovery funding, and as the Post reported that the devastated island is facing a food-stamp crisis.
Of course, none of that stopped the president from insisting to White House reporters on Thursday, “I’ve taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever,” just as he was getting ready to fly off to a political rally in Michigan.
The disaster and its aftermath left nearly 3,000 people dead, and the island is still struggling to recover nearly two years later.
Trump, however, has tripled down on blaming others and insisting that, somehow, everything he and his officials had done was perfect. A senior Trump administration official who has discussed Puerto Rico with the president said that in conversations on the topic, Trump has shown he feels he “has nothing to apologize” for and is far more likely to insult Democratic politicians for, in his view, trying to use the disaster and high death toll to make him look bad, than to to talk about ways to ameliorate suffering on the U.S. territory.
“He’s still clearly very bitter and sensitive about it,” the senior official noted.
Late last year, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), then incoming chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent formal documents requests to FEMA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the “preparations and response” to the storms.
“The Department of Defense strives to keep the Congressional committees fully informed in a manner as timely as possible,” Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email on Friday. “We have provided information pursuant to a Committee request, which are Committee-Use-Only documents in the years 2017, 2018 and 2019 to both HORC Chairman Gowdy and now Chairman Cummings and all pursuant to Committee request letters.”
FEMA spokeswoman Abbey Dennis responded to an inquiry about the documents request simply by stating, “We continue to work with the Committee as they conduct their oversight.”
An HHS spokesperson was similarly vague, saying, “HHS understands and appreciates the role of Congressional oversight and has been working in good faith to be responsive [to] Members on both sides of the aisle. We will continue to do so.”
A source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that HHS had extended multiple offers to the committee to review data and documents on-site at the department, using its online-portal tracking mechanism. The source stated that all such offers have been declined.
As of Sunday night, the Oversight Committee had not provided comment to The Daily Beast on the status of its efforts to obtain more documents from the Trump administration. Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, however, continue to indicate they are still in the dark on the administration’s handling of Puerto Rico.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) said she had not seen anything from the administration that addressed what went wrong, and did not know if the committee had.
“I want not only get to the bottom of how they’ve been handling it,” said Wasserman Schultz, “but I want to make sure we provide the funds as soon as possible that Puerto Rico needs to fully get back on their feet.”
Democrats on the Oversight Committee had set up the investigation into the administration’s handling of Hurricane Maria as a top priority well before they took control of the House majority in January.
In September 2018, committee Democrats released a report arguing that the administration dramatically fumbled the response to the disaster—and that Trump’s Republican allies on the Oversight Committee had shut down a “credible investigation” into how that happened. The Democrats’ report noted that the committee chairman at the time, former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), held only one full committee briefing about the hurricane in the 11 months after it happened. Democrats also claimed that Gowdy did not request any documents from the Trump administration related to its handling of the hurricane and that their own attempts to obtain documents were blocked.
Shortly after Democrats’ midterm victory, Cummings released FEMA documents detailing continued struggles in areas affected by the storm—like lack of access to clean water and reliable power—as evidence that Trump’s response was not, as the president had claimed, “unbelievable.”
“The Trump administration severely botched the response to the hurricanes and failed to learn the key lessons of Hurricane Katrina,” Cummings said in late November. “It is our job in Congress to hold these officials accountable and try to ensure that these same mistakes do not happen again.”
As for Trump himself, this is more than just a matter of policy—it’s a matter of personal pride. According to those close to him, the president has long feared that Puerto Rico’s devastation, and his response and reactions to it, would become known as his Hurricane Katrina, the Category 5 hurricane that pummeled areas stretching from Florida to Texas in 2005. The failure of federal, state, and local governments before and after Katrina became a lasting and defining part of President George W. Bush’s legacy.
“Multiple times I’ve heard [the president] talk about how you don’t want a Katrina moment,” a former senior Trump White House official told The Daily Beast late last year. “You can’t do anything about what weather is going to do, but you can certainly manage the response and the optics of what you’re doing in addition to the substance of what you’re doing.”