Donald Trump has rejected the official conclusion, based on medical investigations, of almost 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico from last autumn’s Hurricane Maria as a political plot against him.
Earlier this week, as Hurricane Florence closed on the Carolinas Trump claimed “incredible, unsung success” in dealing with the destruction in Puerto Rico. That declaration was soon questioned, given the large toll from consequences of the hurricane, with power cut off in most of the island for months, a lack of clean drinking water, and shortages of essential goods and medical supplies.
Stung by the rebuke — and still trying to hail his command as Florence is expected to make landfall this weekend — Trump turned to Twitter on Thursday morning:
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…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
…..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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
In late August, the Puerto Rico Government raised the official toll from 64 to 2,975, following new research by George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. Many of the victims were poor, elderly, and had chronic illnesses that required access to medications and medical equipment.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who had pledged to refrain from criticism of Trump, could not hold back his anger after the tweets deriding the death toll:
"Puerto Ricans have chosen statehood twice in the past 6 years… Take a position on colonialism. It's time to put up or to shut up." pic.twitter.com/UihufuLB6N
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) September 13, 2018
The governor implicitly challenged Trump to stop treating Puerto Ricans as less than other Americans: “Puerto Ricans have chosen statehood twice in the past six years….Take a position on colonialism. It’s time to put up or shut up.”
Trump allies in Florida, facing close contests in November’s elections and conscious of a large Puerto Rican and Hispanic population in their state, distanced themselves from Trump. Governor Rick Scott, running for Senate, tweeted:
I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed. 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
— Rick Scott (@ScottforFlorida) September 13, 2018
Retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said that Trump’s comments were “needlessly hurtful and absolutely wrong. He’s casting doubt on the death count and making it about himself.”
However, beyond Florida, Republican legislators were hesitant over any criticism of Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan said of the death toll, ““Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island.”
Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham put up the defense, “He feels attacked and put upon. When he’s attacked, he pushes back and feels like this story is politically motivated.”
Republican consultant Ed Rollins on Fox TV:
Ed Rollins, on Puerto Rico death toll estimates: "The reality is the Democrats are playing to Puerto Ricans who have moved to this country, moved to Florida, politics, and they're not for us anyways. So, at the end of the day here, the president is accurate" pic.twitter.com/apNN7URemU
— Brendan Karet 🚮 (@bad_takes) September 14, 2018
A Distracted and Angered Trump
Trump’s aides said they have tried to focus Trump’s attention on Hurricane Florence, with daily disaster briefings and calls to governors, senators, and other officials representing North Carolina and South Carolina. Officials have brought large, colored charts and graphs into the Oval Office to illustrate Florence’s path.
But the officials said Trump has been distracted by news commentary about his mismanagement of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as well as about revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book Fear of a disfunctional Administration led by an incompetent, vain, and temperamental President.
The advisors said Trump has been especially angered by the replaying of footage of him throwing paper towels into a crowd of relief workers in Puerto Rico two weeks after Maria.
“I’m not to blame for this,” Trump said, according to one advisor. He denounced the power company in Puerto Rico and his long-time target San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, whom he called “nasty” when she pleaded last autumn for a more effective response by the Federal Government.
When Trump visited Puerto Rico last October, officials told him in a briefing that 16 people had died from Maria. Puerto Rican officials doubled the death toll to 34 later that day.
The official toll was finally revised last month based on the George Washington University study, which looked at the number of deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 and compared that total with what would have been expected based on historical patterns.
Carlos Santos-Burgoa, the principal investigator of the study, said Thursady:
We stand by the science underlying our study. It is rigorous. It’s state-of-the-art. We collected the data from the official sources. Everything can be validated. We didn’t receive any pressure from anybody to go this way or that way. We wouldn’t do it. We are professionals of public health.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley tried to damp down reaction later in the day, while maintaining an assault on the press and Mayor Yulín Cruz: “As the President said, every death from Hurricane Maria is a horror. President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan Mayor who sadly, have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing out a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations.”