President Donald Trump struck false notes in addressing Puerto Rico’s crisis in recent days, exaggerating both the ferocity of a truly ferocious hurricane and the pace of recovery. He also seemed to raise false hope that the territory’s staggering debt would go away.
A look at his remarks during and after his visit to the hurricane-ravaged island:
Trump: “This has been the toughest one. This has been a Category 5, which—few people have ever even heard of a Category 5 hitting land. But it hit land and, boy, did it hit land.” — remarks Tuesday in Puerto Rico.
The Facts: As terrible as it was, Maria actually made landfall on Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane, not 5. Winds were at 155 mph (249 kph), not 157 (253), the minimum for Category 5. It’s a distinction no doubt lost on Puerto Ricans—the storm was even stronger than Harvey and Irma upon landfall, said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. But, “operationally it was a Category 4 hurricane.”
Trump has repeatedly misstated the record. A week earlier, he said: “It actually touched down as a Category 5. People have never seen anything like that, and it was dead center.” And: “The second one hit Puerto Rico as a Category 5. I don’t believe anybody’s ever seen that happen before, hit land with that kind of velocity.”
Trump also said at one point that Maria had winds of 200 mph (322 kph). No official reports put the winds that strong.
His supposition that no other hurricane has made landfall with such velocity is wrong, even when limiting the scope of the comparison to the United States. Maria’s winds at landfall were exceeded by three Category 5 hurricanes that came ashore on the U.S. mainland: in the Florida Keys in 1935, Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992. And Maria wasn’t the strongest recorded hurricane to hit Puerto Rico. Hurricane San Felipe was. It made landfall in 1928 as a Category 5.
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Trump on Puerto Rico’s debt: “We’re going to have to wipe that out. … I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that.” — to Fox News on Tuesday.
The Facts: Washington doesn’t have the authority to force investors to take massive losses, if that’s what he meant. And Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said afterward: “We are not going to be offering a bailout for Puerto Rico or for its current bondholders.”
Much of the $74 billion debt is tied up in court-supervised restructuring since Puerto Rico sought a form of bankruptcy protection last year. Brian Setser, a former Treasury official who worked on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, said the court process is likely to yield significant debt reduction, but “it is not something that the president can make happen.”
Trump’s remark contributed to a plunge in Puerto Rico’s bond prices. Falling bond prices are a sign that investors may be less likely to be repaid—something that usually makes it more expensive for governments and companies to borrow.
Although the type of federal hurricane recovery aid that Puerto Rico receives could influence how debt repayment unfolds, that’s not a bailout and creditors won’t be paid anytime soon.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that Puerto Rico will “have to go through that process” set up during the Obama administration “to have a lasting recovery and growth.” There was no hint in her comments that Trump plans an initiative to make the debt disappear.
Trump: “Who needs a flashlight? … Flashlights, you don’t need ’em anymore. You don’t need ’em anymore.” — while handing out flashlights and tossing rolls of paper towels to a crowd in Puerto Rico on Tuesday.
The Facts: It’s possible his particular audience did not need flashlights, but many Puerto Ricans do. He was visiting the upscale Guaynabo neighborhood, one of the fastest to recover. But more than 90% of the island’s electricity customers remained without power at the time, nearly two weeks after the hurricane. And those who have it back are experiencing periodic blackouts.
Trump called the recovery “nothing short of a miracle.” But the tour showed him a small slice of the island and exposed him to few critics of the relief effort. Visits to homes hammered by the storm were pre-arranged. Water shortages and despair continue in much of the island even as relief supplies have started to move faster and more gas stations start pumping again.
Even in the heart of San Juan, a few miles from Trump’s path, people were hauling clothes fouled with sewage and wet mattresses out of homes still without electricity as he issued his upbeat report. They said no one has come to help them since the storm hit.