What Trump Does and Doesn’t Know About Puerto Rico

When the devastation in Puerto Rico started to unfold, Donald Trump was silent about it all—too caught up in his racist rants about professional athletes. When he finally tweeted about it, here’s what he said:

That produced a lot of head-scratching. Why was the president talking about the island’s debt at a time like this?

Call me naive, but I think it was because he thought it made him look smart. If you want to appear that way, it helps to talk about something you know about. As we learned during the presidential campaign, if there is one thing Trump knows a lot about, it is debt and bankruptcy. He even went so far as to call himself the “king of debt.”

There is also the fact that what Trump knows about Puerto Rico is that they are the largest municipality to ever file for bankruptcy—because he was involved. To get the picture, take a look at what Daniel Wagner wrote about that a year ago.

Donald Trump claimed he had a plan to save a failing Puerto Rican golf resort: He would streamline its budget and attract new members. Those promises, repeated for years, helped the club sell a raft of government-backed bonds that it had very little chance of repaying.

Trump collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from the resort, but he never did oversee the golf course’s daily operations. He didn’t attract more than a handful of new members or reduce its multi-million dollar annual losses. Its costly, self-dealing contracts remained in place. In late 2011, six months after selling the bonds, the club defaulted, leaving Puerto Rican taxpayers — already suffering through a major economic crisis — on the hook for as much as $32.7 million, according to an analysis by Securities Litigation and Consulting Group.

The Trump family distanced itself from the project’s failure, claiming that the real estate developer merely licensed his name to the property. But a review of hundreds of pages of corporate and legal filings, undertaken by BuzzFeed News, shows that Trump promised the club’s investors and the government of Puerto Rico something entirely different.

As Trump enters the home stretch of a presidential campaign boasting about his shrewd business sense and his “unbelievable company,” the failure of the Trump International Golf Club Puerto Rico offers an unusually stark example of some strategies by which he advanced: leveraging his name to attract starry-eyed investors; making all-but-impossible promises; risking public resources without significant investment of his own.

When Trump heard that something was happening in Puerto Rico, I can imagine that this is the story that came to mind. He thought he knew something about this U.S. territory and decided to show off by tweeting about it. The trouble is, all he knew was how he had managed to rip off a golf course—contributing to the trail of debt that resulted in bankruptcy.

This president is incapable of empathizing with the suffering currently being experienced by the people of Puerto Rico. What he demonstrated with those tweets is that his first impulse is to go with what he knows…investors, debt and bankruptcy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .