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Trump mulling use of disaster aid to fund border wall; Puerto Rico governor fires back

Trump visits U.S.-Mexico border amid shutdown

San Juan, Puerto Rico — Facing stiff resistance from congressional Democrats in negotiations to reopen the government, the White House is exploring other ways to fund President Trump's proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. A congressional aide told CBS News one option being discussed would divert federal funds meant to help Puerto Rico and several states hit by natural disasters.

That would follow the declaration of a national emergency to reopen shuttered parts of the government.

The White House has directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine the possibility of using for border wall construction $13.9 billion the corps received in a February 2018 disaster relief bill, the aide said. The money was earmarked for relief measures for Puerto Rico and California, Florida, Texas and other hard-hit states.

Another congressional aide raised concerns that reallocating the money might violate federal law.

It would also ignite a backlash among lawmakers who fought to secure the funds for infrastructure and repair projects back home.

The diversion plan is being presented as an option to the president and may not be implemented.

U.S. President Trump visits U.S.-Mexico border with border patrol agents in Mission, Texas
President Trump addressing reporters as he visits the banks of the Rio Grande River during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, in Mission, Texas, on January 10, 2019 LEAH MILLIS / REUTERS

Puerto Rico is still recovering from devastating hurricanes and facing economic turmoil and intensifying crime. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesperson told CBS News earlier in the week that the prolonged partial government shutdown hasn't affected FEMA's post-Hurricane Maria work. But the proposal being considered by the White House could affect the funding of relief efforts on the still-struggling island. 

Rosselló condemned the proposal and said "no wall should be funded on the pain and suffering" of the Puerto Rican people. "The president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, should explicitly state his intent. Will he support the rebuild of Puerto Rico, California, Texas, US Virgin Islands, and others, or undermine it?" he wrote in a statement to CBS News. "This is a classic case of choosing between obstruction and construction. Which side are you on, President Trump?" 

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who gained national attention for her strong criticism of Mr. Trump following the hurricanes that hammered Puerto Rico, said Puerto Ricans can no longer "stomach" any more of the president's "theatrics, his lies and his threatening behavior."

"His administration was incapable of effectively handling the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria and as a result, more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans died," Yulín Cruz wrote in a statement to CBS News. "Now he wants to stop relief money from getting to Puerto Rico to build a wall that will accomplish nothing more than show the world the president is egocentric and tantrum-driven."

Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner and non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Jenniffer González, a Republican, denounced the proposal. "While the President has broad military authorities as the Commander-in-Chief when it comes to declaring a national emergency, I cannot and will not support reallocating funding we approved in a bipartisan effort in Congress for the recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico," she said in a statement. 

Several congressional Democrats also seized on the revelation to continue their criticism of the Trump administration's handling of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. 

Among them, Rep. Jose Serrano of New York, who tweeted, "I wish I could say this is unbelievable, but this is sadly in keeping with Donald Trump's disregard for #PuertoRico and for #Latinos. Stealing from the recovery effort to fund the wall is beyond reprehensible. As an Appropriator, I'll do everything in my power to stop it."

Rebecca Kaplan, Ed O'Keefe, David Begnaud and David Martin contributed to this report.