Donald-Trump-Puerto-Rico In this file picture President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd at Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, days after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Trump has been criticized for his response to the emergency.
Image via AP Photo/Evan Vucci/File

Trump wondered if he could sell Puerto Rico as the island was dealing with the devastation of Hurricane María. We asked a lawyer to confirm whether Trump has that constitutional right.

SAN JUAN — While Puerto Rico’s residents struggled with the aftermath of Hurricane María, Trump asked if it would be possible to sell the island, Elaine Duke, former acting secretary of Homeland Security, told The New York Times in an interview.

Duke admitted to the newspaper she was shocked by the president’s sudden question. 

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“The president’s initial ideas were more of a businessman, you know,” Duke stated in the interview. “Can we outsource the electricity? Can we…sell the island? You know, or divest of that asset?” 

The president’s comments are the latest in his controversial and strongly criticized response to the island’s recovery. Trump has blamed Puerto Rican officials for mismanagement of relief funds and has claimed in several tweets that Congress has “foolishly” sent $92 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, where much of it was “squandered away or wasted.” 

The newspaper El Nuevo Día clarified the island was slated to receive $75 billion in federal aid, but has just received $72 million thus far, mainly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

It was only recently that the Department of Housing and Urban Development reimbursed $25 million for the reconstruction of houses affected by the hurricane.

In January of this year, the Trump administration imposed severe restrictions on approximately $16 billion in disaster mitigation aid after several earthquakes damaged the southwest region of the island. The White House cited concerns about political corruption. 

“In a great win for Puerto Ricans and U.S. taxpayers,” said Chase Jennings, a spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget, “the administration has outlined reforms for the grant agreement to Puerto Rico in order to protect resources.”

Trump’s alleged interest in selling Puerto Rico has sparked outrage from politicians.

“You may try to sell the office you hold, your personal integrity and your soul, Mr. President—but I assure you Puerto Rico is not for sale!” Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez wrote on Twitter.

Ritchie Torres, the Democratic candidate for the Bronx 15th Congressional District, said, “The road to legal equality for Puerto Rico runs through statehood, which would protect the island from the colonial whims of a madman like Donald Trump.” He has commented on this topic multiple times on Twitter.

In 2019, Trump also joked about exchanging Puerto Rico for Greenland, when he was interested in purchasing the island from Denmark, according to The New York Times.

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A Never-Ending Story

According to the lawyer Carlos Gorrín Peralta, Trump’s question about selling the island is on a par with the way the United States has traditionally treated Puerto Rico.

“Since the comments come from Donald Trump, they are of particular interest. They come from the President of the U.S., and in a sense, Donald Trump is no different than any of the previous presidents, starting with William McKinley,” Gorrín told The Americano.

Gorrín explained a series of events in history that highlight the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico:

  • In the Beginning. After December of 1898, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States with the Treaty of Paris, political figures held opposing opinions regarding sovereignty over the newly acquired territories, Gorrín explained.
  • Insular Cases. The debate over sovereignty went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the newly acquired territories were differentiated from others that would eventually become part of the U.S. In 1922, the case Balzac v. Porto Rico confirmed that the island would not be incorporated into the nation. “Since then, all U.S. presidents, Congress, and the Supreme Court have treated Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory that belongs to the U.S., while not being a part of the country,” said Gorrín.
  • Territorial Clause. The lawyer explained that during the past two decades, the U.S. has reasserted its control over the island.  Before former President Bill Clinton left office in 2005, he designated a commission to address the situation on the island. In the commission’s first report, it was established that the Territorial Clause was so extensive that the United States could cede the island to another country, even without consulting Puerto Ricans. George W. Bush and Barack Obama reconstituted the commission during their terms. “That has been the official position of the president since George W. Bush, reiterated by the Barack Obama commission as well as Donald Trump through his actions,” Gorrín said.
  • No Sovereignty. In 2016, the case of Puerto Rico vs. Sánchez Valle reiterated again that the island does not have sovereignty. Gorrín said it was interesting that the three branches of the U.S. government were in agreement. “On June 8, Obama sent a message to the House of Representatives that they would have to pass a bill that originated in the Department of the Treasury. Eventually, it became the PROMESA Act.” The next day, the Supreme Court announced the verdict of the Sánchez Valle case, reemphasizing that the island doesn’t have autonomy. “At 4 p.m. that same day, the House of Representatives approved the PROMESA project, even with many objections,” said Gorrín. PROMESA stands for the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, a financial oversight board in charge of restructuring the island’s debt crisis.
  • No Way Out of Debt. Four days later, on June 13, the Supreme Court solved the case Puerto Rico vs. Franklin California, establishing that the island will not seek relief under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Gorrín explained that in 1984, Congress had excluded the island from being eligible for the bankruptcy code, effectively disabling it from having any debt-restructuring mechanism. When the Supreme Court ruled on the case, the Senate later approved PROMESA, which was signed by Obama on June 30, 2016. “In June 2016, the foundations were set in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches to give sufficient backup for Donald Trump—in light of his constitutional right—to state, as he would put it, that it’s all about dollars and cents, and Puerto Rico can go to the highest bidder. And this because Puerto Rico is so dependent on sovereignty and the plenary power of the U.S.,” Gorrín said.
  • Free Determination. Gorrín indicated that this constitutional law of the U.S., forged at the beginning of the 20th century, is not consistent with the international obligations that the nation has assumed through international laws. Jimmy Carter created human and political policies during his presidency from 1977 to 1981 that went into place internationally. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ratified or created similar policies promoting human rights, said the lawyer. According to Gorrín, Article 1 of the Human Rights Covenants is a territory’s and people’s right for self-determination and the obligation the U.S. has to promote this right. The lawyer said taking that principle into consideration makes Trump right and wrong at the same time in his comment regarding selling the island. “He is right in light of his reactionary constitutional law, which intends to continue an illicit domain over Puerto Rico, and at the same time is in violation of international law by the mere fact of saying that the U.S. can sell Puerto Rico without asking us for their opinion. In that case, the U.S. would be clearly violating the people of Puerto Rico’s right to their free determination.”

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