How Rubio and Gaetz persuaded Trump to shell out more hurricane aid
TALLAHASSEE — President Donald Trump left Washington on Wednesday for a campaign rally in Panama City Beach with nothing to offer the Panhandle toward its recovery from Hurricane Michael.
But by the time Air Force One Landed at Tyndall Air Force Base, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio persuaded the president to promise his supporters that he would increase the federal share of costs brought on by the Category 5 storm, according to Gaetz.
White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget Russell Vought had told Trump during a Monday meeting not to exceed a 75 percent cost-share limit set by federal regulation. Surpassing the limit, they said, could open the door for more requests.
"They were worried about setting a precedent," said Gaetz, who attended the Oval Office meeting along with Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But neither Mulvaney nor Vought were aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, giving Gaetz and Rubio an opening to persuade the president as the three flew to Florida. Rubio told Trump about Michael’s 155-mile-per-hour winds, which had hammered one of the poorest areas of the state. The extraordinary circumstance warranted an extraordinary executive order.
“[Rubio] told the president a Category 5 storm is something different, and it’s something that has never happened in the Panhandle,” Gaetz told POLITICO. “Our economy has tourism, it has military and it has agricultural, and all three legs of that stool were knocked out.”
Gaetz said Trump handed him a pen to take notes so White House policy adviser Stephen Miller could squeeze the funding increase into the president's speech.
A person with knowledge of the conversations confirmed Gaetz's version of events on Air Force One.
More than 200 days after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Panhandle, Congress has yet to pass a supplemental funding bill to help with recovery costs, in part because of a standoff between the Trump administration and lawmakers over aid to Puerto Rico. But the Panhandle region was key to Trump’s victory in 2016 and will be again as he seeks re-election in 2020, a message that wasn’t lost on the president.
“Today I’m doing the most allowed by law to support the people of Florida,” Trump said at the rally a few hours after Air Force One landed. “Because of the severity of the storm — Category 5 — we will have the federal government pay for 90 percent of the cost in many circumstances.”
A Trump administration official said that “the administration has always been committed to needed disaster relief in Florida, and there’s also an understanding for additional funds to deal largely with debris removal.”
The order will require FEMA to reimburse localities and electric cooperatives 90 percent of the cost of debris cleanup, extra security measures, building repair and mitigation projects.
The decision translates to a savings of more than $500 million in storm recovery costs over the next two years that otherwise would fall on state, county or municipal governments, state Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said.
“It’s a major sigh of relief for the folks in the Panhandle,” Moskowitz said. The increased funding would help recoup $1.8 billion set aside by the Legislature to help poor communities affected by the storm.
“That’s why this affects every citizen in the state,” Moskowitz said.
Federal regulation only allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to increase its share of the cost if the expenses exceed a threshold driven by a population of impacted residents. A president can also sidestep that rule with an executive order, which allows FEMA to tap into billions of dollars it already has on hand.
Gaetz said Mulvaney and Vought feared the executive order would allow other states to seek increased funding for future storms. The Government Accountability Office released a report in 2012 recommending FEMA develop methods to reduce requests to exceed the threshold.
FEMA has already provided the Panhandle region with $151 million, with most of the cash going to the Panama City area, federal data shows.
Gaetz said he told Trump House Democrats had no interest in freeing up hurricane dollars that would go to a region that heavily supported him in the 2016 election.
“These people feel betrayed by the Democrats and by Washington,” Gaetz said. “They’re punishing these people because they voted Republican and they voted for him.”