President Donald Trump on Thursday falsely accused Democrats of inflating the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, rejecting that government’s assessment that the storm had claimed nearly 3,000 lives.
Trump said that the toll was only six to 18 dead after his visit following the storm but that was at a time when the estimate of fatalities was changing. It rose to 34 in the hours after the president left the island. Trump on Thursday said Democrats padded the death toll by including, for example, a person who died of old age “in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
“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,” Trump wrote.
He continued, “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!”
The president’s comments came as the government prepared for Hurricane Florence, whose high winds were already beginning to batter the coast of the Carolinas.
Hurricanes typically provide a platform for elected officials to display leadership and strength. And a poor response, such as the government’s during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, can do significant damage to approval ratings. The federal government’s response to the storm that hit Puerto Rico has been viewed as inadequate — full power was restored to homes in August.
Some Republicans took issue with the president disputing the estimated number of deaths in Puerto Rico tied to Hurricane Maria.
“There is evidence, truthful facts that there have been these number of deaths. No one is distorting the truth,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a retiring Miami Republican, said Thursday. “It might be a new low,” Ros-Lehtinen said of the president’s false claim about the Puerto Rican death toll, adding that only a “warped mind that would turn this statistic into fake news” about himself.
The death toll in Puerto Rico has changed since Trump’s visit to the island last year. Fatalities from the storm had been officially recorded as 64 for nearly a year, despite convincing evidence that the figure was too low because official death certificates had failed to take into account the long-range impacts of the storm. The National Hurricane Center, a federal agency, called the death toll “highly uncertain” in an April report and logged the official number at 65. The report noted “hundreds of additional indirect deaths in Puerto Rico may eventually be attributed to Maria’s aftermath pending the results of an official government review.”
In August, after a thorough review, Puerto Rican officials accepted a revised estimate of the dead as 2,975. And lawmakers — Republican and Democrat — have accepted those findings.
“These days even tragedy becomes political,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a Twitter post Thursday. Rubio said 3,000 Americans died in Puerto Rico after the hurricane and said federal and local governments both made mistakes.
In some parts of Florida where highly contested midterm elections are just weeks away, there is good reason for the politicization.
Since the storm, many Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida and are eligible to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, making support from the Puerto Rican diaspora even more critical in the state that is known for close races.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who is running for re-election, said he did not understand why Trump would inaccurately state the number of people who died.
“We should all be focused on what is about to happen in the Carolinas and not politicize hurricanes and hurricane relief,” Curbelo said.
Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate against a longtime Democratic incumbent, disputed the president’s assertions in a Twitter post Thursday.
“I disagree with @POTUS- an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed,” Scott wrote. "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.”
Scott has made several trips to the island since the storm, and he has campaigned on his efforts to assist in the recovery.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, sidestepped questions about the issue Thursday.
Trump took to Twitter this week to warn residents in the path of Hurricane Florence to follow the advice of local officials and to be prepared. And he also repeated his assessment that his team got high marks for the responses to hurricanes in 2017, calling the mayor of San Juan, who has been critical of Trump, “totally incompetent.”
Trump has pushed back against criticism that his administration was slow to respond to Puerto Rico, where the distribution of supplies, gas and food lagged and power outages lasted for months, particularly compared with a swift and efficient response to an earlier hurricane, Harvey, that hit Texas. It was six days after Hurricane Maria hit the island before Trump pledged to go there, even as he traveled to Texas four days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.
On Tuesday, the president praised himself and his team for an “incredibly successful” job done in Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria. In July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency published a report, noting empty warehouses and not enough qualified staff in position to respond to the disaster. It did not include a fatality count, citing an ongoing review by the Puerto Rican government.
While Trump on Thursday accused the Democrats of “bad politics,” Democratic lawmakers seized on the president’s portrayal of the loss of life in Puerto Rico.
“You’re right, Mr. President. The Hurricane didn’t kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in a Twitter post. The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, of California, said in a tweet that the president “prefers his ‘alternative facts’ to the tragedy faced by families of the lost.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., called for the president to resign Thursday.
“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,” Thompson said in a statement.