Just before the interview starts, Jenniffer González-Colón tries four different numbers she’s been trying to reach back home in Puerto Rico. She gets the same error message for all of them. Can’t connect.
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One call that does come through is from the White House, which is trying to explain away the president’s tweets warning that the federal response to Hurricane Maria wouldn’t go on forever. Her reaction was off the record.
González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, is using what limited power she has to wheedle, cajole and beg agencies to help with an island territory she says has been put back a century—some 86 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without electricity, three weeks after the hurricane knocked out the island’s power grid, and 29 percent don’t even have potable water.
She’s calling in favors and firing off text messages to get patients dialysis or chemotherapy, with no time to think about the damage to her own house. González-Colón happened to be home during the storm, and she was literally holding the door closed. Now in Washington to lobby for a more vigorous relief effort, she’s anxious about all the damage that continues to mount from rain that keeps coming down on homes that don’t have roofs anymore.
“Your life,” González-Colón told me with tears in her eyes during an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast, “is like stopping without knowing what is going to happen next.”
Days after we spoke, on Monday, President Donald Trump was standing in the Rose Garden of the White House, explaining why he shouldn’t be blamed for a lackluster hurricane response that has exasperated Puerto Ricans and infuriated many other Americans back on the mainland.
Trump cited the pre-existing debt, said the island “was in really bad shape” before the storm, ripped local authorities for making the military participate in handing out food in a way that “they shouldn’t have to be doing,” and insisted he’d been doing an “outstanding job.”
The word González-Colón—a lifelong Republican—kept using to describe presidential statements like this is “shocking.”
Two weeks ago, she hitched a ride on Air Force One to San Juan, and came back with a red Make America Great Again hat signed by the president and what seemed like commitments to the recovery. She doesn’t understand why the president, having seen the disaster with his own eyes, hasn’t prioritized federal resources and instead issued threats.
Does the president get what is going on? I asked her.
“You know what?” she answered. “Maybe I’m going to be nice here: I don’t know.” She was clearly choosing her words carefully.
“This is not the time to be talking about withdrawing the help,” she continued, a flash of anger in her voice. “This is not the time to talk about how much it’s costing the U.S., because we are American citizens.”
Before she was in Congress, González-Colón was the Republican Party chair in Puerto Rico, and though she started out backing Jeb Bush, and then Marco Rubio, she eventually supported Trump for president.>
Click here to subscribe to the full podcast, to hear Gonzalez speak about what she made of President Trump’s promise to wipe away Puerto Rico’s debt, what she thinks will happen now that the White House has backtracked on it, and the new kind of community thinking that’s taken root since Hurricane Maria.
She doesn’t criticize him for that viral moment in which he tossed out paper towels and cans of chicken during his visit to the island two weeks ago—“you are dealing with a president that is always off the script, that says what he thinks,” she said—but she refuses to accept his repeated suggestions that somehow Puerto Rico brought the situation on itself through its debt crisis or management failures.
“Saying that Puerto Rico is in bankruptcy as a way or excuse just to not to help is not wise. It’s not American, and it’s not rightful,” González-Colón said. “If we were a state, we already would have a lot of the help that Florida did.”
She said the president’s hostile statements make even less sense in light of the engaged, serious conversation she had with him on the plane, and the action on the ground since: “He’s sending the resources. He’s granting everything that has been asked. He’s having daily briefings on the island. He’s sending the troops.”
But the cost of rebuilding Puerto Rico is likely to be enormous—the House recently voted for $4.9 billion in relief funds for what estimates are pegging at an overall need north of $90 billion.
And Trump, as he manages to do on every issue, has turned his Puerto Rico response into a frenzy of raging feelings. The day before sitting for the interview, González-Colón spoke at a rally near the Capitol hosted by a group called Unite for Puerto Rico that repeatedly descended into shouting and shouting about stopping the shouting. Rep. José Serrano, a New York Democrat who was born in Puerto Rico, ripped into the president, prompting Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy, who spoke next, to rush to Trump’s defense.
“President Trump spent more time on the island than Barack Obama!” he declared to boos and shouts of “It’s not about politics!”
“I don’t care about what the letter is behind your name, I care about what we’re going to do for the island of Puerto Rico. To come in here and listen to that crap, I think undermines a bipartisan mission to bring people together,” Duffy said in an interview after the speech, touting the funding bill. “It’s going to be Republicans that are going to deliver.”
That’s the problem, argued Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-born Democrat from New York: The president and the Republicans haven’t been delivering on what he says “is becoming the Caribbean Katrina.”
“This is a humanitarian crisis. This should not have a political label on it. But President Trump is the commander in chief. The Department of Defense should have gone out there and handled this like a war zone,” Espaillat said, in an interview after his own remarks at the rally. As for Trump’s claims of doing a great job, Espaillat added, “He’s done a horrible job.”
A major subplot of the crisis has been San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz’s frequent TV hits, sometimes in custom-made T-shirts, to make attacks like that right to the camera, and a spun-up Trump channeling his anger into tweets attacking her.
It’s clear González-Colón doesn’t think the mayor is helping the situation.
“Everybody on the island is frustrated, because we never expected to be hit by this kind of hurricane, and we never expected to be for so long without power. So everybody is using their frustration in different ways. I know a lot of mayors there are around the clock, working, and calling,” González-Colón said.
González-Colón admits to some guilt in going home to her apartment in Washington and having a working shower, or just being able to get a bottle of water—the kinds of things that are now major luxuries in Puerto Rico. She’s making several trips back home every week, accompanying official delegations with the president, the vice president and the speaker of the House and each time packing bags full of supplies. She even loaded up Air Force One with medicines, a diesel can and dry food.
On a desk covered in papers and notes, which comes with being the main point of contact between the crisis and Washington, she also has two books: Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s “Conscience of a Conservative” and Jill Lepore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.”
The decoration in her office that gets the most prominent display is an American flag with 51 stars. Despite multiple referendums showing heavy support for statehood, she doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. But maybe there’s a silver lining to the storm clouds, she said, in making the country more open to the idea.
“The only good thing this hurricane brought us is that now everybody knows that we are American citizens,” she said. “And we are 3.4 million American citizens, actually.”> Share on Facebook > Share on Twitter
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Source : http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/10/17/off-message-puerto-rico-trump-maria-215718