Aboard Air Force One
En Route Washington, D.C.
5:43 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: I’ve got a few people with me. I’ll keep things really quick so that they can make a couple of remarks. I’ve got the congresswoman from Puerto Rico, Administrator McMahon, Secretary Perry, Administrator Pruitt all here.
They’ll each kind of rotate through and make a few brief remarks, and then we’ll take a couple of questions. They’ll walk you through the day, and we’ll take questions specific to today and the recovery and relief efforts. And then I’ll stay, maybe — we’ll see how everybody’s feeling — and take a couple of questions on other topics.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to the congresswoman and let her walk you guys through some of the activities of today, and then we’ll let everybody go through.
CONGRESSWOMAN GONZALEZ-COLON: Thank you. First thing, for Puerto Ricans, this is a very important visit. We are not used to have the President of the United States down in Puerto Rico, and having members of the Cabinet here with him shows us the importance of this visit. I got an opportunity to talk to him before landing, and it looked to be very human — asking, you know, what we need, what’s going on on the island?
We are improving the situation. And, actually, we were briefed — my people, my staff is already in the district — and we saw the changes in the 700 people waiting in the gas stations. Now we are not having the same kind of lines waiting because more gas stations are open because all the airports (inaudible) troops that are being sent into the island.
We used to got 4,000 people before Irma. After Maria, we got 10,000 people, and now we got more than 15,000 people helping in the current situation on the island. So we never got this kind of federal work in a coordinated matter.
Of course, there’s still a lot of work to do. I mean, we still have a lot of bridges that were washed away by the water. And actually, the Corps of Engineers is down in the island trying to build provisional bridges for those communities. And so that’s an ongoing effort.
We still got a lot of areas that are without power — more than 90 percent of the island. So that’s an ongoing effort. They are trying to reestablish the power grid with not only the Corps of Engineers; we’re also having people from different states like California, Mississippi. So this a joint effort.
Same thing with communications. We still are out — you experience some communications in the metropolitan area, but outside metropolitan area, there’s zero coverage. So that’s a big issue for us, and that’s the reason you got many banks with the problem of using credit cards.
All those issues are improving, you know, slowly, but improving during the last day. I will tell you also that waiting for gas, for diesel. The hospitals — we went from just 29 hospitals functioning, operational, to almost 60. Still a lot of work to do because most of them are receiving directly power and they’re not working on generators.
But there’s still rescue missions going on in (inaudible) in the center part of the island. So this is not solved yet, but for me, it is important to hear the President himself telling me, you’re not alone. We’re going to be with you in the whole way. You’re going to have our support, our commitment. That’s the reason I’m traveling to the island. It looks to me very human in asking questions directly to the people. I mean, how do you felt the winds?; How can we improve the way to give commodities, water, supplies, and stuff to the island?
Even today, not all general stores are open, so people do not have access to buy water, to buy food. So they’re trying to open the big stores on the island, and that’s a progress that is being made because since Monday all stores were closed.
So we’re still in an ongoing process, but I feel confident that, first, we are not going to be alone. The President is supporting Puerto Rico all the way. The First Lady looks to me that she was passionate about how help more communities there directly, and asking about that directly. Having the Cabinet members just pointing out, and having private meetings with the mayor about actual issues.
We were discussing there, how can we improve that situation with the waiver that the President just gave to the island in terms of having 100 percent federal costs waived for the removal? The rescue missions — I asked to have another waiver for 100 percent in the rebuilding process and repairs.
So, having said that, we still are a work in progress, but it’s not the same when you got the President on your side. It’s not the same when you got the federal agencies working together. And what I said in the press conference before — I mean, we are used to have hurricanes, but we never before got a direct communication with the federal agencies with the local government working those things out. And I think that’s a 100 percent improvement.
Having the Secretary there many, many times — I mean, for Puerto Rican people this is a way — we’re very grateful — and this is a way to show us that we are 3.4 million American citizens, that we contribute to the United States in different ways — people in the military, people joining the forces.
But this is going to be a long road to recovery, but we are not going to be alone.
Q What answer did you get to your question about the waiver? When you asked for the waiver for cost sharing for rebuilding, what kind of response did you get?
CONGRESSWOMAN GONZALEZ-COLON: They’re still working on that issue because there’s an issue of liquidity. The government is not going to have liquidity to pay in the next month. So I know there’s some issues being discussed, in terms of what programs — what specific programs — are going to be waived.
Actually, I spoke yesterday with the Deputy Secretary of Transportation, and we were defining what programs. The same thing with Agriculture — there are so many programs and the White House is saying that there’s an executive order from George Washington — I’m sorry, George Bush — saying that Puerto Rico should be treated as a state in all federal programs. So if that executive order is still in place, we should waive that.
Q What did you think of the President saying — that first roundtable, he made a comment about the fact that this has cost the U.S. government a whole whack of money. What did you think of him bringing that up?
CONGRESSWOMAN GONZALEZ-COLON: We are receiving more than $1.6 billion in direct help. We’re talking about commodities. We’re talking about water, diesel tanks, personnel that is in the island. So we know this is a — we are part of the U.S. So this is the help we need at this time of need.
So, I mean, he’s just saying that — many people are saying that the U.S. is not doing enough. But in the forefront with $1.6 billion in the island — he just signed $40 million for the highways repairs last week, and there’s more money coming up in the next days. So we’re talking about a new relief package for the hurricanes.
So this is not stopping there. It’s going to continue to have more costs, and of course, more money getting through to the island.
Q Do you have any assurances on when that supplemental request will come from the White House? Or you had mentioned liquidity — I know that the island has been looking into loans from the Treasury Department. Have you gotten any assurances on that?
CONGRESSWOMAN GONZALEZ-COLON: On the first one, in the supplemental for relief, I spoke with the Speaker of the House, and he’s committed to have that during the last week of October. So there’s going to be money there. How much? We don’t know yet.
So they’re still managing how much for (inaudible), how much is going to be for SBA, how much is going to be for the rest of the agencies. But there’s going to be — not just for Puerto Rico — it’s going to be for all hurricanes. So all states can receive money from FEMA from that fund.
Q What more does Puerto Rico need, in your opinion? Did you convey the needs of the federal government to the President during the time that you spent with him?
CONGRESSWOMAN GONZALEZ-COLON: The governor has been asking and requesting a lot of help in different ways, and the President has granted 100 percent of what the governor asks. When you’re working in a desperate situation like we are — and we still are in a dire situation — and you see that the President, his Cabinet members are committed, and everything that has been requested has been granted — I mean, that shows you commitment.
And it’s not just words, it’s commitment; it’s money; it’s personnel; it’s tanks; it’s having a daily meeting with the Cabinet; communicating with the governor, in terms of where we are, what we need, how can we improve logistics. The commodities are arriving to the island, but they’re not getting to all the people in the island yet. I mean, in the southern part of the island.
So that logistics problem is the one that General Buchanan and the general that — General Kim — that are being assigned to the island are working on.
Q You spent a lot of time with the President today. You also were in meetings that were closed to us. Did you hear any constructive criticism of the President?
REPRESENTATIVE GONZALEZ-COLON: You have it here.
THE PRESIDENT: Everything good?
REPRESENTATIVE GONZALEZ-COLON: Yes, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: That was a terrific visit. That visit was terrific. Really great. Thank you very much for your nice words. Thank you. Appreciate it, very much. That was really nice. That was a great, great visit. Really loved it.
Q Were you able to make any guarantees to any of the officials there about a supplemental or —
THE PRESIDENT: We didn’t discuss that. No, we didn’t discuss that.
Q Mr. President, we heard a lot of praise for the efforts that you’ve done, the rest of the federal government has done, FEMA has done over the course of the day. We weren’t in every meeting, obviously. Did you hear any constructive criticism today?
THE PRESIDENT: None. They were so thankful for what we’ve done. And the congresswoman will tell you that they are so thankful for what we’ve done. Even the bringing of the big — you know, it’s the largest hospital boat in the world, and that arrived a little while ago.
Here’s a man right there, that’s been — known him a long time, right, Geraldo?
But it’s been — I think it’s been a great day. No, we only heard thank you’s from the people of Puerto Rico. They’re great people. And it was really something that I enjoyed very much today, being with them.
Q Mr. President, did you mean, earlier this morning, when you were talking to folks before you left, you said, on a local level, they have to give us more help. What did you mean by that?
THE PRESIDENT: On a local level, we need the truck drivers. We need the police. We need more help on a local level, that’s true. We have tremendous amounts of supplies there. We need them distributed locally, and the best one to do that are local people.
We need local help, and they’re helping. They’re really gearing up. They’re helping. Don’t forget, a lot of them lost their homes. And when you lose a home, it’s not easy to say, hey, I’m going to go and start delivering water — or even be a policeman. So, on a local level, we need help but they really have responded very well.
Q What does it, do you think, mean to the people of Puerto Rico, just you’re being on the island today after such devastation struck them over the course of the past two weeks?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it means a lot to the people of Puerto Rico that I was there. They’ve really responded very nicely, and I think it meant a lot to the people of Puerto Rico.
I mean, I think you folks have seen it. And I guess it’s one of the few times anybody has done this. I didn’t know that at the time, but I guess, from what I’m hearing, it’s the first time that a sitting President has done something like this. Is that a correct statement, congresswoman?
REPRESENTATIVE GONZALEZ-COLON: Yes, sir. Yes.
THE PRESIDENT: You were one of the people that told me.
REPRESENTATIVE GONZALEZ-COLON: Your First Lady and your Cabinet — we used to have one person coming to the island — two, three weeks later. But you know, you’re here with your whole staff coming back and forth. That never happened before.
THE PRESIDENT: And I know the people of Puerto Rico. And I know Puerto Rican people that live in New York and they’re friends of mine. And I will tell you, it’s an honor for me to have done it.
Now go back to Linda. She’s far more exciting.
Q What are your goals tomorrow in Las Vegas?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s very, very sad. I’m leaving early in the morning tomorrow. I will be in Las Vegas. We’re going to see some of the folks that are recovering — some of the survivors. We’re going to be seeing — it’s a very horrible thing even to think about. Really horrible.
We’re also meeting with the police, with the Sheriff, and we’re going to spend quite a bit of time in Las Vegas. But we’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning.
Q (Inaudible) this morning to having a debate on gun control at some point in time —
THE PRESIDENT: At some point, perhaps that will come. But that’s not for now; that’s for — at a later time.
Q Do you think he should have been able to have all those weapons and all those kinds of weapons that they found in that hotel room?
THE PRESIDENT: We’ll talk about that on a later date.
Q Did you have any time to get updated on the latest in the investigation?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I have. I’m fully updated.
Q What motivated him?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m fully updated. Number one, he was a sick and demented person, but I guess we know that without an update. But he was a sick and demented person.
Q Do you believe it could have any link to ISIS, one way or the other?
THE PRESIDENT: I have no idea. Thank you very much.
PARTICIPANT: Linda McMahon, the administrator SBA.
Q What is the SBA doing for the people of Puerto Rico? What have you been doing and what will you be doing in the weeks and months ahead?
ADMINISTRATOR MCMAHON: We’re continuing to do what we do for all disaster relief, and that is to come on site. FEMA is first; we are right behind FEMA. We’re not responsible for help, shelter, and well-being but we wanted to get on the ground early so that people can get their applications in for home mortgages and also businesses.
This is the only time that SBA actually lends money directly. Normally, we guarantee loans, and we never guarantee loans for mortgages. So in disaster relief, we do both.
So we’re trying to get applications in. It’s really hard because most of the applications are online now, and online is down. But I met with our staff today from the district office, and they are hand-delivering applications. So they started in the southern part. They’ve delivered about 700, they said, there. And a little bit more north, they put out another 300.
So I have about 1,000 applications out now.
So we want to be able to get money into the hands of the businesses and the homeowners so they can get back in business, rebuild their communities, and start to help their economy be lifted.
Q Do you have a sense of the number of businesses or the number of homeowners that have been displaced or not able to get their businesses back online yet?
ADMINISTRATOR MCMAHON: I can tell you what we’ve done in Puerto — this is a combination of Puerto Rico and Florida for Irma, but we’ve approved 285 loans. Doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but it’s about $12,384,000 right now. Compare that to Harvey, which is primarily Houston. So we’ve approved 8,767 loans for $742 million. So we’re getting in there to help them when we can.
And the other thing that we’re doing — I mean, we’re going to be there for the long-term. This is going to take a while. And so, what SBA is doing is, when the loans are approved — and this isn’t loans. These are not grants. They are long-term. Mostly the home loans are at about 1.75 percent, and we are deferring payments for a year if you’re approved. These are for uninsured loans, which are mostly what we’re finding in Puerto Rico, and about 80 percent of the loans in Houston were uninsured.
When we go give or approve a loan, then there is a rider that you must have flood insurance when you come back in. So we’re trying to give people a break on the timing and for the payment structure. And if you have the misfortune of already being in a disaster loan area, and now you’re hit with another one, we’re also deferring your payments for that loan as well. So we’re trying to help people get back on their feet.
Okay? Thank you.
MS. SANDERS: Since, the President came back, I can take like one or two questions. But my guess is, we’re probably kind of covered everything already. If you guys have any, I’m happy to try to do one or two.
Q (Inaudible.) Is he coming back?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think so. I think everybody felt like once the President goes, you kind of, like — you know, nobody wants to go up against the President.
Q I just to ask about something Secretary Mattis said today. He said that it would not be in the U.S. interest —
MS. SANDERS: (Inaudible) as most of you, I’ve been without internet most of the day. I haven’t seen his specific comments.
Q He said it would not be in the U.S.’s interests to withdraw from the Iran Deal. So since the President has already made up his mind, according to him, is that in line with what the President has decided?
MS. SANDERS: As you know, we never get ahead of the President’s announcement. I’m certainly not going to do that back here on the plane right now. But I know he plans to make that decision known in the coming days and weeks.
Q (Inaudible) Politico last night that the administration is considering welfare reform — starting to circulate that among different agencies and departments for review. Can you talk about whether that’s true, and if it is, what are some of your goals for welfare reform would be?
MS. SANDERS: I think right now we’re simply at kind of the discussion mode on that front. Certainly, every day there’s a lot of different policy discussions that take place. Welfare reform is one of them.
And there have been no, like, specific outlines or priorities determined, but we’re in the interagency process, and it’s an open discussion right now on what that could look like, and a chance for all of the different agencies to weigh in and kind of voice what their priorities would be in that process.
Q Sarah, the San Juan mayor today — the President exchanged pleasantries with her. It seemed short. It seemed nice. But then she didn’t clap when people clapped for the federal response, for the military response. Do you have any thoughts on that?
MS. SANDERS: I think that’s a question you would have to ask her. I think overwhelmingly we’ve heard from the governor, the congresswoman, more than, I think, close to two dozen mayors just today alone that all had very positive things to say. And I think you guys witnessed a lot of that today, and certainly heard from the congresswoman.
So in terms of why that specific individual didn’t clap, that’s a question you would have to ask her. But I think — not just from elected officials, but today, when we were walking the streets, talking to members of the military that have been on the ground for the last week or so, their response has been very positive, in terms of their interaction with the people.
So I think from our standpoint and what we’ve heard outside of that one individual, I think I’d look to masses on this one. And why she didn’t clap for the men and women in uniform, that’s a question you would have to ask her. I certainly would never weigh in on something like that for her.
Q Does the White House feel that things have turned the corner in Puerto Rico?
MS. SANDERS: For what?
Q That you’ve turned the corner in Puerto Rico in terms of —
MS. SANDERS: You know, we felt like the response was strong on the front end, in terms of being able to do everything we could, given the limitations of the infrastructure, the location.
You know, you can’t — it’s comparing apples to oranges when you’re looking at the difference of Puerto Rico versus Texas and Louisiana. And I think Brock Long talked about that some today, that you guys probably heard. So it’s just very different circumstances, that you can’t compare the two.
We feel like the response has been strong. As the governor has said from day one, every time he has asked for something, the federal government has responded. We have tried to work hand in hand with them from day one, and we’re going to continue to do that moving forward.
I’ll take one more question.
Q Sarah, do you anticipate that Brock Long and Tom Bossert will be making additional trips down to Puerto Rico in the weeks and months ahead?
MS. SANDERS: I would think so — certainly Brock long. I would imagine that he’s back probably pretty frequently. Tom Bossert, I’m sure, will make another trip, but I’m not sure on the timing of that. But as you know, we’ll certainly keep you guys posted on that front.
All right, thanks guys.
6:06 P.M. EDT