President Trump denied Thursday that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and accused Democrats of trying to “make me look as bad as possible” by increasing the death toll months after the fact.
He argued that the thousands who died were counted “a long time” after the hurricanes hit the island.
“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000. This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!” he wrote over two tweets.
In August, the official death toll rose from 64 to 2,975, more than double the estimate of 1,437 that the Puerto Rican government sent to Congress.
The nearly 3,000 deaths is an estimate by analysts from George Washington University commissioned to investigate the extent of death resulting from Hurricane Maria. The analysts compared the number of deaths from September 2017 to February with an estimate based on historical patterns since 2010.
Mr. Trump made the comments after two days of praise for his administration’s response to the disaster. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency did an “unappreciated great job” and that responders had to deal with “an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan.”
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello rejected the president’s comments Thursday.
“Neither the people of Puerto Rico or the victims deserve their pain to be questioned,” Mr. Rossello, a Democrat, said in an interview with CBS News.
The governor previously responded to Mr. Trump’s remarks about FEMA’s success by arguing that the relationship between “a colony and the federal government” could never be successful.
“This was the worst natural disaster in our modern history. Our basic infrastructure was devastated, thousands of our people lost their lives, and many others still struggle,” he said in a statement.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, countered Mr. Trump’s claims Thursday during his weekly press conference.
“Casualties don’t make a person look bad. So I have no reason to dispute those numbers,” he said. “Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island.”
Former Rep. Ron DeSantis, usually a strong Trump backer, also distanced himself from the claim. He is running a tight race for governor of Florida, a state with one the biggest Puerto Rican populations in the continental U.S.
“He doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” his campaign team told local reporters.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, whom Mr. Trump endorsed in his U.S. Senate run, also pushed back against the president.
“I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rossello agreed. I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching. I’ll continue to help PR,” he tweeted.
Democrats lined up to slam Mr. Trump over his comments. They were led by House Minority Whip Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who accused the president of focusing on himself.
“Only Donald Trump would try to make the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans into a story about himself and his political fortunes,” Mr. Hoyer said in a statement. “Shame on him, and shame on this Congress for not holding him and his Administration accountable for their role in these tragic and preventable deaths.”
The congressman argued that Republicans should have done more to investigate the federal response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to find out why so many were “left without power, clean water, health care and other basic services for months afterward.”
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, echoed Mr. Hoyer’s demands for an investigation and called Mr. Trump’s tweet an attempt to “rewrite history.”
“The fact that the President will not take responsibility for his Administration’s failures and will not even recognize that thousands have perished shows us, once again, that he is not fit to serve as our President,” he said in a statement.
The George Washington analysts concluded that there was a “lack of awareness” and training for those working on death certifications after the storm. This “limited the count of deaths that were reported as related to Hurricane Maria.”
The Puerto Rican vital statistics system was offline “for some time” because of the storm, which caused some delay in death registration, though the reports were complete and accurate in the end.
Category 4 Hurricane Maria slammed into the island in September just weeks after Category 5 Hurricane Irma grazed the island. Hurricane Maria was deadlier than Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm that killed 1,833 people in 2005.
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