Fact-Checking Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s Claims on Statehood for Puerto Rico

This post was published in Pasquines on October 4, 2018.

At the end of September, Newsweek’s Robert Valencia interviewed Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor, Ricardo Rosselló. They met a few days after President Donald Trump told Geraldo Rivera that he did not support Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations. The president also blamed the island’s recovery on Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, and other “incompetent” leaders. Rosselló used the interview to make a case for why Puerto Rico should be admitted as the nation’s 51st state.

In making his case for statehood,  Rosselló made two problematic statements that require further scrutiny….

To keep reading, please click here.

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Does Donald Trump Care about Puerto Ricans Affected by Hurricane Maria?

Author’s Note: In the next weeks, the Puerto Rico Data Lab will be transitioning to a new site. In the meantime, I will be publishing my thoughts on Puerto Rico in both platforms.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on September 20, 2017. Despite all the ups and downs associated with the island’s slow recovery after the storm, one thing seems to pretty steady. President Donald Trump and his White House have been arduously working to make sure that Hurricane Maria does not become the President’s Katrina.

Many experts believe that the Bush administration’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans hurt President George W. Bush’s approval ratings and undermined his leadership on domestic issues.

Once it became clear that Hurricane Florence was going to hit the southeast coast of the United States, President Trump knew that he had to go on the offensive and show that his administration was ready to respond to the storm’s future impact. On September 12, 2018, Trump tweeted:

We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!

Other tweets followed, reassuring Americans that FEMA and first-responders “are supplied and ready” and asking those people in the path of the storm to “follow local evacuation orders”.

President Trump’s views on Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria set off a media storm. Rather than ignoring the criticisms, he decided to double-down. In one of his tweets, he cited Fox Business News Lou Dobb’s view that: “The people of Puerto Rico have one of the most corrupt governments in our country”,alleging that the island’s slow recovery rested in the hands of the local government. He then had the audacity to  question the validity of a new study conducted by George Washington University on behalf of the Government of Puerto Rico that estimates the death-toll associated with Hurricane Maria was close to 3,000 lives.

What do Americans think of President Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria? Do they think that he cares for to needs of the victims of this Category 4 storm?

The recent Economist/YouGov poll (September 16-18, 2018) can help us answers these two questions. It is worth noting that this polling firm has asked the same questions three times since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, helping us understand whether American public opinion has shifted in this time period.

These questions were first asked on October 1-3, 2017 as President Trump visited Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to survey the hurricane’s damages. The questions were fielded again on June 3-5, 2017 after the publication of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that questioned the Government of Puerto Rico’s mortality data following Hurricane Maria and estimated that hurricane-related deaths stood between 793 and 8,498.

Let’s look at respondents’ answers to the first question.

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump handled the response to Hurricane Maria_ (1)

It seems that Americans are slightly more critical of the president’s handling of Hurricane Maria. Have his tweets hurt his political standing among his supporters or independent voters?

2016 Trump Voters' Views on the President's Response to Hurricane Maria

It is worth noting that President Trump did not address Puerto Rico’s slow recovery or the controversy regarding the Puerto Rico Government’s inability to account for all the hurricane-related deaths. This could explain why his political standing with his supporters may have declined in early June 2018. The important finding is that his base thinks that his response to Hurricane Maria was the right one.

Given that the midterm elections are around the corner, it is important to consider whether independents approve or disapprove of the president’s response to Hurricane Maria..

Independents' Opinions of President's Trump Response to Hurricane Maria

While independents are more critical today of President Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria, it is worth emphasizing that his standing has slightly improved with this voting group since June.

Needless to say, the president’s strongest critics identify as Democrats. In October 2017, 54% of Democrats disapproved of his handling of the situation increasing to 73% today.

The Economist/YouGov Poll also asked respondents the following question: “How much do you think Donald Trump cares about the needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria?” This question, as I noted in a previous post, is basically asking respondents to look past policy issues and to judge his moral character and his empathy towards others.

How much do you think Donald Trump cares about the needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria_

It is clear that while 46% of Americans approve of his handling of Hurricane Maria, many question his empathy towards the victims of the storm. This is even true among his strongest supporters.

2016 Trump Voters' Views on Whether Trump Cares about Hurricane Maria VictimsRepublicans' Opinions on Whether Trump Cares About the Victims of Hurricane Maria

Today 6 in 10 Democrats believe he does not care “about the needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria”, while 37% of independents feel the same way.

Could these attitudes affect President Trump’s job approval? It is difficult to say. So far, it seems that while Trump’s supporters have problems with his moral character, they are not ready to abandon him at this point. We even see this attitudes with some members of Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party (NPP), which currently controls Puerto Rico’s governorship and the legislature. While many Puerto Ricans were angered by Trump’s tweets, many of the NPP leaders who identify as Republicans publicly defended the president’s response.

So far, it is difficult to say whether or not Americans believe that Hurricane Maria is Trump’s Katrina or whether the island’s slow recovery will hurt his future electoral prospects. What is clear is that many Americans still support Trump, though many do question his character. While this may seem strange, it is important to remember that as electoral races across the country start to intensify, the American public will become more polarized. Thus, we should expect that Trump’s support among Republicans and among his more ardent supporters to grow, regardless of how they feel about his moral deficiencies.

 

 

What do Americans Think of President Trump’s Handling of Puerto Rico’s Slow Recovery? Will These Opinions Affect His Approval Ratings?

Six days into the 2018 hurricane season, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters for a briefing on the agency’s readiness to respond to future hurricanes. While Trump’s remarks referenced Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts, he did not talk about the numbers of Puerto Rican who died as a consequence of Hurricane Maria.

The President tweeted his thoughts about his FEMA visit:

Thank you to everyone at HQ for today’s briefing on preparations for the upcoming hurricane season. Disaster response and recovery is best achieved when it’s federally supported, state managed, and locally executed – this is the successful model we will continue to build.

Almost nine months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, how do Americans rate Trump’s response to the island’s humanitarian crisis? The Economist/YouGov Poll of June 3-5, 2018 does provide some clues. But before we look at the figures, it is important to keep in mind two things.

  1. President Trump’s approval ratings have improved dramatically in the last weeks. The RealClearPolitics average estimates that Trump’s enjoys the approval of 42% of Americans. The FiveThirtyEight model, which adjusts the polling data according to different criteria, finds that his approval is at 41%.  To put these numbers in perspective, Trump’s approval rating when he visited Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria stood around 38% in both the RealClearPolitics average and the FiveThirtyEight model.

2. On October 18, 2017, President Trump and Governor Rosselló met in the White House to discuss Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria. After their meeting, they met with the White House press corp and took some questions. As I noted in an earlier post, Trump was asked to rate his administration’s response to the situation in the island, using a 10 point scale. Unsurprisingly, the President graded the federal government’s performance with a 10 out of 10.

Back in October 2017, a majority of Americans did not approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis. Have opinions changed?

chart (58)

The graph shows that Americans today are more critical of his efforts. But it is important to highlight that the number of Americans who disapprove of his response is roughly the same. In other words, if we were to combine the number of people who selected “Disapprove Somewhat” and “Disapprove Strongly”, we would see that 44% of respondents disapproved of Trump’s response in October 2017 and in June 2018.  What is surprising, given that Puerto Rico’s death toll controversy has been widely covered by U.S. media outlets, is the number of Americans who cannot rate the president’s performance, which increased by 8% in the newest survey.

The Economist/YouGov Poll also asked respondents the following question: “How much do you think Donald Trump cares about the needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria?” This question is basically asking respondents to look past policy issues and to judge his moral character and his empathy towards others.

 

chart (61)

The graph clearly shows that respondents question President Trump’s moral sensibilities While the survey does not capture why respondents have become more critical of Trump, one possible reason is his unwillingness to publicly talk about Puerto Rico’s crisis, even when events in the island receive lots of media attention. This makes Trump seem uninterested in the issue, raising questions about his moral character.

Looking at the crosstabs in both surveys, we can see that some of Trump’s toughest critics are those respondents who are either registered Republicans or who said they voted for him in the 2016 presidential election. For example, 71% of those respondents who voted for Trump and completed the survey in October 2017 “strongly approved” of “the way Donald Trump [handled] the response to Hurricane Maria.” Although this figure decreases to 45% in the most current poll, it is worth noting that the number of Trump supporters who disapproved of  his handling of the situation only increased from 5% to 11%. Survey-takers who identify as Republicans also became less supportive of President Trump’s performance. In October, 58% of Republicans “approved strongly” of his response, but it decreased to 39% in the most recent survey.

These findings are also applicable to the other question. In October 2017,  three-fourths of respondents who voted for Trump believed that President Trump cared “a lot” about the  “needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria.” By June, this number declined to 56%. We seem similar drops among registered Republicans.

The only surprising result is the number of Hispanics who believe that he cares “a lot” about Puerto Ricans’ “needs and problems”, which jumped from 15% to 18%. While this is a small bump, which may be statistically insignificant, it is the only category where his ratings did not decline.

 

Will Trump pay a political price for his handling of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria? It seems unlikely. While the Economist/YouGov Poll did include questions on Puerto Rico, major polls conducted by Quinnipiac University,  FoxNews, the NBC and the WSJ did not do so. This suggests that pollsters believe that this issue is not of national significance.

This reality raises an important question: if President George W. Bush’s mishandling of the response to New Orleans affected his legacy, why is President Trump’s standing with the American public not affected by Puerto Rico’s slow recovery? One possible answer is that Americans rate Trump’s other controversies as more important.

But, I think that the problem is more complex. Most Americans think of Puerto Rico as a foreign nation, rather than a U.S. territory. And for those Americans who do not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they will not think of the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico when they judge President Trump’s performance. Yesterday’s post showed that 58% of those who completed the most recent Economist/YouGov Poll either do not think that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens or are not sure of their citizenship status.

 

 

 

 

 

“Hell to Pay”: One of Governor Ricardo Rossello’s Favorite Phrases

On May 31, 2018, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced, with much fanfare, to his 500,000+ Facebook followers:

“In few minutes watch my interview with Anderson Cooper CNN talking about Puerto Rico recovery efforts.”

It is interesting that his post mentioned that he was invited to talk about “recovery efforts” rather than the Harvard University-funded study – “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria” – which was undoubtedly the main news story regarding Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts in both Puerto Rico and in the United States.

Cooper asked Rosselló about the Harvard-funded study and why his government failed to share its mortality data with the study’s authors. Although Rosselló said he welcomed the study and noted that he had commissioned George Washington University to study the matter, Rosselló said he was surprised to hear that officials in his government had refused to share its data with the researchers.

Unconvinced by Rosselló’s remarks, Cooper asked him again why his government fail to grant the authors’ request and the governor promised to further investigate the issue, noting that “there will be hell to pay” if he finds out that government officials decided not to cooperate with researchers.

An hour after the interview, CNN shared a video of the interview, using the following headline: “Rossello: Hell to Pay if Data Not Available”. In Twitter, the “Hell to Pay” phrase has been widely used to describe the governor’s interview with Cooper.

I have been researching Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts for a long time and I have listened to countless of hours of Governor Rosselló’s answers to questions from reporters, lawmakers in Capitol Hill or Trump administration officials. And this phrase – “hell to pay” – is one that Rosselló has used in the past, anytime journalists question his or his government’s credibility or ability to manage a crisis. Every time he has used the phrase, it has been followed by a promise to hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions.

The following table provides a short summary of Rosselló’s use of the phrase since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but representative of a pattern in Governor Rosselló’s behavior. Links to each story are provided too.

Date Source Headline Context
10/9/2017 Reuters Hell to pay’ over water, food deliveries, Puerto Rico governor warns Questions regarding the Puerto Rican government’s and federal authorities’ mishandling of the distribution of water and other supplies to hurricane victims.
10/12/2017 PBS News Hour White House is committed to long-term Puerto Rico recovery despite Trump tweets, says Gov. Rosselló Allegations that local Puerto Rican officials are not distributing supplies to hurricane victims.
10/19/2017 CSPAN President Trump Meeting with Governor of Puerto Rico In question and answer session with press, President Trump and Governor Rossello are asked about allegations that supplies have been hoarded by local Puerto Rican officials and not distributed to hurricane victims.
10/27/2018 ABC News PR Governor Threatens “Hell to Pay” As Probes of Whitefish Contract Begin A reaction to questions regarding PREPA’s award of the Whitefish Energy contract to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid after Hurricane Maria.

Why does this matter? Democracy works when the government and its leaders are transparent and accountable. Puerto Ricans know that their government and elected leaders are not perfect. What they want are responsive institutions and leaders, who are working on behalf of the public good and are willing to put society’s collective needs over their own wants.

To this day, it is not clear whether some local officials failed to distribute supplies to hurricane victims. Although Ricardo Ramos, resigned as the CEO of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority,  we are still waiting for the governor to commission an investigation into the Whitefish Energy contract. The pattern continues now with the government’s accounting (or lack thereof) of the increased mortality rate after Hurricane Maria.

As noted above, Rosselló told Cooper that he was “shocked” to learn that his government denied access to its mortality data to the Harvard-funded research team. And there are two problems with this statement. First, although he has publicly stated that he welcomes the Harvard-funded study, he has not read it. After all, the study notes:

Although the government of Puerto Rico stopped sharing mortality data with the public in December 2017 (our request for these data was also denied), in April 2018 the Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, an autonomous government entity, adopted a resolution to improve the counting of disaster-related deaths and publish all mortality data online without further delay.

This is troubling. If Rosselló did not take the time to read the study everybody has been talking about in Puerto Rico and in Washington, D.C. for the last days, how committed is he to making sure that this problem is not repeated in the future?

Second, and probably more worrying, Rosselló is either lying or lives in a bubble, where his advisors are trying to shield him from reality. As NPR’s Adrian Florido recently tweeted:

Gov. told CNN that “there will be hell to pay” if he finds that his govt. has refused to release mortality data.  [Centro de Periodismo Investigativo] sued them for the data. I was in a courtroom last week in which his govt’s lawyers were defending withholding it. How does he not know that?

This is not the first time that Governor Rosselló or his political allies have stretched the truth to protect their own interests.

Will things change thanks to the Harvard-funded report or Andersen Cooper’s tough questions? Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to this question.

 

 

 

Which Towns in Puerto Rico Should CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud Visit?

On March 16, 2018, David Begnaud, a correspondent for CBS News, posted a video in his Facebook and Twitter accounts, announcing his return to Puerto Rico and asking his followers to provide suggestions of places he and his team should visit to get a sense of how Puerto Rico is doing six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

Before we consider his followers’ suggestions, let’s look at Begnaud’s reporting record and why he has been such an influential figure in the Puerto Rican community. If you are already familiar with Begnaud’s work jump to the next section.

Begnaud & Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

As I noted in an earlier post, for most Puerto Ricans living either in the U.S. mainland or in the island, Begnaud has become a household name. What has made Begnaud’s style of journalism different from his colleagues? On top of his news stories for CBS News, Begnaud has used to great effect his Twitter and Facebook accounts. Many of his tweets or Facebook posts included video interviews of federal and Puerto Rican officials shot with his iPhone and photos of the island’s devastation, which helped his followers appreciate the serious humanitarian crisis that unfolded in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. And even when he was in other parts of the United States covering other news events, Begnaud kept providing coverage of Puerto Rico’s post-Maria recovery sharing his insights or retweeting other news stories.

Begnaud’s coverage of Puerto Rico recently earned him a George Polk Award for Public Service. Furthermore, his reporting helped him grow his audience in Facebook and Twitter. For example, in early September 2017 Begnaud had around 10,000 followers in Twitter, increasing to around 75,000 by November. Today, he has around 85,300 followers in this platform. In Facebook, he currently has over 350,000 followers, growing from around 10,000 followers shortly before Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.

Crowdsourcing a News Story: Beganaud’s Facebook Followers & Their Suggestions

As of 18 March 2018, over 200,000 have viewed his video in Facebook. His post has received over 11,000 likes, more than 5,000 shares and over 2,600 comments. I started to read the comments and it became clear that there were two groups of people reacting to Begnaud’s video. The first group lived in Puerto Rico and the second where people living outside the island, but with deep knowledge of its geography and the events that have affected the recovery process. Begnaud followers encouraged him to visit different towns across the island. Which towns or municipalities received the most attention?

Using Pablo Barbera’s rFacebook package for R, I downloaded 2,658 comments. Utilizing David Robinson’s and Julia Silge’s Tidytext package, I tokenized the comments and removed ‘stopwords’ to see which towns or municipalities received the most mentions. Sixty-two of the island’s 78 municipalities received at least five mentions. San Juan and the metropolitan area were mentioned over 100 times, but I decided to exclude the capital city from the bar graph below as most of Begnaud’s followers encouraged him to pay less attention to the metro area and concentrate his reporting to smaller towns and cities.

The bar graph below details the 15 municipalities that received the most mentions. Yabucoa with 407 mentions tops the list. It is followed by Humacao with 250 mentions and Utuado with 170.

chart (11).png

The fact that Yabucoa and Humacao head this list is not surprising. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Yabucoa and the town has not recovered since then. Humacao a small city of 50,000 residents, a few miles north from Yabucoa is also still struggling to return to normal. The other towns are mostly in the island’s mountainous interior, where the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have had difficulty repairing the electric grid.

Concluding Thoughts

Begnaud’s decision to ask his followers where to visit and what issues merited his attention was a very good idea. His followers overwhelmingly believe that he should spend some time in the island’s interior and coastal towns in the southeast. Begnaud’s method raises an important question about crowdsourcing and whether journalists and other researchers should adopt this strategy. But this is an issue I will tackle in a future post.