President Donald Trump took issue Thursday with the number of deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria, falsely saying a higher count had been generated by Democrats to “make me look as bad as possible.”
A sweeping report from George Washington University released last month estimated there were 2,975 “excess deaths” in the six months after the storm made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017.
Trump said on Twitter that “they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths” at the time he visited the island after the storm.
“As time went by it did not go up by much,” Trump wrote. “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!”
Trump’s tweets — which came as a highly dangerous Hurricane Florence churned toward the Carolinas — brought an immediate rebuke from Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans.
Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, R-Florida, said she believes the figure of nearly 3,000 is sound.
“What kind of mind twists that statistic into ‘Oh, fake news is trying to hurt my image,’” she said. “How can you be so self-centered and try to distort the truth so much? It’s mind boggling.”
In a statement, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, called on Trump to “resign at once.”
“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.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who publicly pleaded with Trump for a stronger response to the storm, also blasted the president Thursday in a series of tweets.
“This is what denial following neglect looks like: Mr Pres in the real world people died on your watch. YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING!” she wrote.
During a news conference on Capitol Hill later Thursday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, avoided directly criticizing Trump but said he had no reason to dispute the study’s findings.
“This was a function of a devastating storm hitting an isolated island, and that is really no one’s fault,” Ryan said. “The casualties mounted for a long time, and I have no reason to dispute those numbers.”
The George Washington University study, requested by the governor of Puerto Rico, examined an unusually long period of time following the storm in an attempt to detect the hurricane’s lingering, indirect effects on mortality.
The investigation looked at the total number of deaths from September 2017 through February 2018 and compared it with typical death rates, adjusting for many variables, including the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who evacuated the territory after the storm struck Sept. 20.
The findings were embraced by the government of Puerto Rico as the study was released.
For much of the past year, the government had formally acknowledged just 64 deaths from the hurricane, which ravaged much of the territory and destroyed critical infrastructure. The spike in mortality came as the territory dealt with widespread and lengthy power outages, a lack of access to adequate health care, water insecurity and diseases related to the crisis.
Contrary to Trump’s characterization in his tweets, the study did not attempt to catalog particular individuals who died because of Maria. Instead, the study made a comparison of mortality rates with what would have been expected without a natural disaster. Given the methodology, there was not an opportunity to misclassify someone who died from old age, as Trump suggested.
The president’s tweets come on the heels of a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll in which Puerto Ricans gave low marks to Trump, along with the federal and local governments, for last year’s response to Maria. Eighty percent said Trump had done either a poor or fair job responding.
Survey findings support the widespread nature of deaths related to the storm, with about 1 in 5 Puerto Rico residents saying a close friend or family member died either from injuries caused by the storm or because they were unable to get sufficient water, food or medical care in the months afterward.
Earlier this week, Trump hailed his administration’s response to Maria as “an incredible, unsung success.”
It was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office as he was receiving a briefing on Hurricane Florence.
That assessment brought sharp rebukes from officials in Puerto Rico and congressional Democrats.
Among those criticizing Trump was Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who previously had sought to avoid confrontations with Trump.
He called Maria “the worst natural disaster in our modern history” and said many people are still struggling.
“Now is not the time to pass judgment; it is time to channel every effort to improve the lives of over 3 million Americans in Puerto Rico,” said Rossello, who belongs to Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party and has been a delegate at Democratic conventions.
Trump’s tweets about Maria were part of a spate of others from the president Thursday morning. Some warned of the dangers of Florence, while others attacked the FBI and touted the strong economy under his watch.
Washington Post writers Joel Achenbach and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
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