President Donald Trump on Thursday claimed, without evidence, that Democrats made up a new report estimating that nearly 3,000 Americans living in Puerto Rico died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
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
The comment did not go over well in Florida, home to a large Puerto Rican-American population and thousands of displaced island residents. Even some of Trump's staunchest Republican defenders swiftly rebuked the president's claim.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted: "I disagree with @POTUS," using the acronym for "President of the United States." "An independent study said thousands were lost and (Puerto Rico) Gov. (Ricardo) Rosselló agreed. I've been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand."
That came after Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, asserted, "It's beyond dispute that our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico did NOT get all the help they needed from the Trump administration in the wake of Hurricane Maria."
No matter what anybody says, it's beyond dispute that our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico did NOT get all the help they needed from the Trump administration in the wake of Hurricane Maria. https://t.co/SKif8WXMSB— Nelson for U.S. Senate (@NelsonForSenate) September 13, 2018
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
Scott and Nelson are neck-in-neck in a Senate race that could determine who controls Congress' upper chamber. Both have made outreach to Florida's growing Puerto Rican population a focus of their campaigns.
Likewise, the candidates running for Florida governor quickly responded to Trump's attempts to undermine the latest death toll.
"No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from @realDonaldTrump before, during, and after the hurricane," Democratic nominee and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum tweeted.
Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor and a frequent defender of the president, disagreed with Trump's assessment. DeSantis spokesman Stephen Lawson said the former congressman "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," Lawson said.
No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from @realDonaldTrump before, during, and after the hurricane.— Andrew Gillum (@AndrewGillum) September 13, 2018
In the year since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the turmoil on the island. His defiant defense of his administration's response has ramped up in recent days as the East Coast braces for another storm: Hurricane Florence.
In a Tuesday press update on Florence, he called his administration's response to Maria an "unsung success," while also falsely claiming Puerto Rico "had no electricity essentially before the storm."
As Florence approached the Carolinas Thursday morning, Trump's frustrations over persistent Maria criticism boiled over on Twitter, where he floated a new conspiracy about the updated death toll: "This was done by Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible."
.....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
Trump said the number of deaths when he visited Puerto Rico after the storm was "from 6 to 18," even though news outlets were already reporting dozens, if not hundreds, of additional casualties that were likely uncounted.
Some outlets, for example, called Puerto Rico funeral homes and discovered far more deaths than initially reported.
A report from George Washington University and the University of Puerto Rico concluded on Aug. 29 that 2,975 likely died as a result of Hurricane Maria and the catastrophic conditions on the U.S. territory after the storm. Much of the island remained without electricity and running water for months after Maria hit, and many residents died while waiting for help.
To reach that conclusion, researchers analyzed death certificates and other reports from September 2017 through February 2018 and compared it to typical death rates for that time period and other historical patterns.
These days even tragedy becomes political. 3k more Americans died in #PuertoRico 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. https://t.co/NQRKWbWEdh— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) September 13, 2018
Trump said, "3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico" adding, "If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"
But the study's results have been embraced by Puerto Rico officials as likely accurate after months of standing by early reports of just 64 deaths. George Washington University said in a statement Thursday that it stood by the report.
Paul Ryan tells reporters he has "no reason to dispute" the 3,000 death toll in Puerto Rico. He toured the island after the storm.Casualties "mounted for a long time." "Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island."— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) September 13, 2018
The updated tally would make Maria one of the deadliest single disaster events in recent U.S. history. An estimated 1,833 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while 2,996 people died immediately or from injuries sustained in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers.