President Donald Trump on Thursday denied that thousands of people in Puerto Rico died as a result of Hurricane Maria last year, falsely claiming that one reported estimate of the true death toll was exaggerated by Democrats for political gain.
“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Trump tweeted. “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,” he continued. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!” he added.
The figure Trump was referencing is the 2,975 deaths attributed to Maria in a report by George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. The report commissioned by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was released last month and said 2,975 more people died in the six months following the Category 5 storm than would have died during a regular six-month period. The figure, which Rosselló said he accepted, was nearly 46 times the initial total of 64 deaths released by the Puerto Rican government.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether it accepts the findings of the George Washington University study.
The university’s Milken Institute, which created the report, stood by its findings and noted that it “was carried out with complete independence and freedom from any kind of interference.”
“Our results show that Hurricane Maria was a very deadly storm, one that affected the entire island but hit the poor and the elderly the hardest,” the institute said in a the statement. “We are confident that the number—2,975—is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date.”
Republicans running for office in Florida, a state with 1.2 million Puerto Ricans, declined to endorse Trump’s baseless position. Gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis “doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” his spokesperson said. Gov. Rick Scott, running for Senate against a Democrat, on Twitter: “An independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed. I've been to Puerto Rico 7 times and saw devastation firsthand.
Even Fox News criticized the president. Outnumbered co-host Melissa Francis called his tweets “distasteful” and co-host Harris Faulkner saying they “cheapen us as a country.”
Trump and his administration were criticized from the beginning for a slow and inadequate response to the storm that struck on Sept. 16, 2017. The island has struggled over the past year to recover from the storm, which knocked out electricity in many areas for months. Medical care, food, clean water, and shelter were lacking or nonexistent for nearly as long. Thousands left for the mainland United States when conditions did not improve.
It was also revealed this week that millions of water bottles provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2017 were left sitting undistributed on an airport runway for over a year. Many of the deaths are believed to have resulted from a lack of access to clean water.
Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria is distinct from his response to the storms that hit Texas and Florida in the same season last year, an investigation by PBS and NPR found. Four days after both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made landfall in Texas and Florida, respectively, Trump visited each of those states. He didn’t visit Puerto Rico for 13 days.
About a month after the storm made landfall in Puerto Rico, 16,500 federal, civilian, and military personnel were on the island, compared to 22,300 who were called to Florida just nine days after Irma hit.
But Trump has been defensive of his response to the deadly storm since Maria struck. At a press conference on the island last year, he said his administration had gone “all out” for Puerto Rico, complaining: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you are throwing our budget out of whack.”
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said she holds Trump personally responsible for the deaths.
“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 tweeted Thursday after Trump’s rant.