Trump claims without evidence that Democrats distorted Hurricane Maria death toll

President Trump throws paper towels to hurricane victims

President Trump visits Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico to hand out supplies to hurricane victims and throws paper towels into the crowd.
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President Trump visits Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico to hand out supplies to hurricane victims and throws paper towels into the crowd.

President Donald Trump argued Thursday, without evidence, that a recent report that about 3,000 Puerto Ricans died due to Hurricane Maria was a political stunt by Democrats “to make me look as bad as possible” and that government officials and university researchers “just added” people who died from natural causes to the official list.

The accusation comes a week ahead of the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico, which set off a logistical and humanitarian crisis for the U.S. territory’s 3.3 million U.S. citizens.

And Trump’s unsubstantiated tweet comes after Florida Republicans have spent the past year courting Puerto Rican voters ahead of the 2018 election, some of whom relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria.

President Trump lauded his administrations’s response to Hurricane Maria as an “incredible unsung success,” during his briefing ahead of Hurricane Florence on Sept. 11.

Republicans like gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis and U.S. Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott have spent months campaigning with Puerto Rican surrogates and making frequent visits to the U.S. territory to view the destruction and recovery efforts firsthand. Trump’s tweet puts them in a bind as they try to win the Puerto Rican vote, which has traditionally gone to Democrats.

“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Trump tweeted, referring to Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which skirted the island two weeks before Maria hit. “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 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!”

Scott and DeSantis said they disagree with the president’s assertion.

“I disagree with POTUS [Trump]– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed,” Scott tweeted. “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.”

“Ron DeSantis is committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community, especially after such a tragic loss of life,” campaign spokesperson Stephen Lawson said in a statement. “He doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated. Ron is focused on continuing to help our Puerto Rican neighbors recover and create opportunities for those who have moved to Florida succeed.”

The official death toll from last year’s storm stood at 64 until late August, although doubts had been cast on that estimate. Harvard University researchers’ door-to-door check produced an estimate of more than 4,000, though there was a significant variation on the actual death total.

On Aug. 27, the Puerto Rican government put the number of dead at 2,975, a total that includes deaths caused or not prevented because the island’s infrastructure was blasted. The study was conducted by George Washington University researchers on behalf of the Puerto Rican government. On Tuesday, President Trump called the U.S. government’s response “an incredible unsung success.”

Earlier this week, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who had avoided criticizing President Trump’s handling of the disaster for months, said that thousands of people died in Puerto Rico and that the relationship between San Juan and Washington is not successful.

“No relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called ‘successful,’ because Puerto Ricans lack certain inalienable rights enjoyed by our fellow Americans in the states,” Rosselló said in a statement. “The historical relationship between Puerto Rico and Washington is unfair and unAmerican. It is certainly not a successful relationship. 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.”

Rosselló added on Thursday that “we cannot allow for the response efforts to be politicized” and reiterated that his government stands behind the count of 2,975 people dead.

State Rep. Bob Cortes, a Puerto Rican Republican who serves as Florida gubernatorial candidate DeSantis’ director of Puerto Rican outreach, told WFTV in Orlando that he does not dispute the government’s estimated death toll.

“Every morning there is something new that the president tweets,” Cortes said. “I have no reason to doubt the number of 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico.”

Other Republican officials, including Miami Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, criticized the president’s remarks.

“To treat the deaths as a political tools is shameless and disgusting,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It’s hard to fathom how one could look at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of deaths and make it about you. It’s unfathomable. It’s time that we recognize that we failed in our mission to protect life and try not to ever do that again. But if we’re not going to admit the mistakes then, by golly, we have a hurricane headed our way again and South Carolinians are just as American as Puerto Ricans.”

Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said he hadn’t seen Trump’s tweet. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said “we need to stop the blame game.”

“These days even tragedy becomes political,” Rubio tweeted. “3k more Americans died in after Hurricane than during comparable periods before. Both Fed & local gov made mistakes. We all need to stop the blame game & focus on recovery, helping those still hurting & fixing the mistakes.”

Democrats blasted Trump’s assertion, with Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez arguing that it wasn’t the hurricane that killed 3,000 people, it was the botched response from the Trump administration.

“The Hurricane didn’t kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did,” Menendez tweeted.

Sen. Bill Nelson called Trump’s assertions “shameful.”

“No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from before, during, and after the hurricane,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum tweeted.

“It’s the theater of the absurd that we witness everyday,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049