WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday rejected the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from last year's Hurricane Maria, arguing without evidence that the number was wrong and calling it a plot by Democrats to make him "look as bad as possible."
As Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas, the president picked a fresh fight over his administration's response to the Category 4 storm that smashed into the U.S. territory last September. Trump visited the island in early October to assess the situation amid widespread criticism over recovery efforts.
"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 tweeted.
He added: "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."
Puerto Rico's governor last month raised Maria's official death toll from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study found that the number of people who succumbed in the sweltering aftermath had been severely undercounted. Previous reports from the Puerto Rican government estimated the number was closer to 1,400.
Trump's comments drew swift criticism from elected officials and residents of the island, where blackouts remain common, 60,000 homes still have makeshift roofs and 13 percent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a Facebook post in Spanish, "The victims of Puerto Rico, and the people of Puerto Rico in general, do not deserve to be questioned about their pain."
Rossello said he left the analysis of the deaths in the hands of experts and accepted their estimate as the official death toll. "I trust that this process was carried out properly," he said. He also said he was waiting for Trump to respond to a petition to help Puerto Rico complete work on emergency housing restoration programs and debris removal.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a Democrat who has sparred with Trump, tweeted that "Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT." Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat whose parents were Puerto Rican immigrants, spoke on the House floor in front of a printout of the Puerto Rican flag, saying Trump is "delusional" and incapable of "empathy or basic human decency."
Some Republicans joined the chorus of criticism.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said: "Casualties don't make a person look bad. So I have no reason to dispute those numbers."
And a spokesman for former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis —who won the Florida primary for governor with Trump's support— put out a statement that said DeSantis "doesn't believe any loss of life has been inflated."
Florida already had a large Puerto Rican population before Hurricane Maria, and thousands have relocated to the state since the storm hit the island.
Trump began to focus on Hurricane Florence earlier this week, calling for an Oval Office briefing with the FEMA director to warn about the threat. As the storm began to dominate news coverage, the administration's efforts after Hurricane Maria came under new scrutiny and the coverage began to infuriate Trump, according to two Republican advisers close to the White House who weren't authorized to speak publicly.
When a reporter asked Trump about Maria in the Oval Office, he swiftly unleashed a fact-challenged defense of his response to the hurricane. That led the cable news coverage that evening.
Trump told confidants the media were underplaying the challenging circumstances in Puerto Rico and trying to exploit the storm to attack him. He told one adviser he felt that he media "would stop at nothing" to undermine him and blamed local authorities for an inept response.
The estimate of nearly 3,000 dead in the six months after Maria was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. The study said the original estimates were so low because doctors on the island had not been trained to properly classify deaths after a natural disaster.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides doctors with a set of recommendations for counting such deaths as those caused by natural disasters, but the guidelines were almost never followed by Puerto Rican doctors in the chaos after the storm.
Puerto Rico's government, which is neither Republican nor Democratic but run by the pro-statehood New Progressive party, accepted the 2,975 number as a legitimate estimate of the storm's true toll.
State and local officials are responsible for establishing death tolls, not the federal government. After the number was revised Aug. 28, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement in which she did not actively dispute the revised figure.
She said at the time that back-to-back hurricanes that hit last year prompted "the largest domestic disaster response mission in history." She noted that some 12,000 personnel were sent to Puerto Rico for response and recovery efforts and said the federal government would continue to support the island's government and its communities in their recovery for years to come.
Throughout this week, the president has repeatedly defended his administration's effort in Puerto Rico, calling it it an "incredible, unsung success" and has renewed his verbal spat with Cruz, the San Juan mayor.
Hurricane Maria hit last year as the Trump administration was feeling positive about the handling of massive hurricanes in Florida and Texas. Trump believed those recovery efforts were a success story he could use to turn a tide of negative press stories after a troubled August, said one official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Then came Maria and devastation in Puerto Rico, where a slow federal response was complicated by logistical concerns and preexisting economic and infrastructure deficiencies on the island territory.
But Trump, that official said, was unwilling to admit even internally that more needed to be done on the island.36 comments on this story
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Its residents are U.S. citizens, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional delegate with limited voting powers.
Trump, who has struggled to express public empathy at times of national crises, sparked outrage during his post-Maria visit when he feuded with the San Juan mayor and tossed paper towels to victims like he was shooting baskets.
After that visit, Trump said Puerto Ricans were fortunate that Maria was not a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast. All told, about 1,800 people died in that 2005 storm.