WASHINGTON—President Trump on Thursday denied Hurricane Maria caused 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico, falsely accusing Democrats of inflating the toll to “make me look as bad as possible.”
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Mr. Trump tweeted Thursday. “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 3,000.”
Mr. Trump 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. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
Researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, commissioned by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, in a report last month estimated there were 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico from September 2017 through February 2018 stemming from last year’s hurricane. That far surpassed the original official count.
President Trump met with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló at the White House and gave himself a "10" for the hurricane response in Puerto Rico. Photo: Getty (0riginally Published October 19, 2017)
Puerto Rico’s government—led by a governor with the island’s pro-statehood party who is also a Democrat—faced criticism for nearly a year after the hurricane that it drastically undercounted the number of fatalities caused by Maria. Last month, it acknowledged in a document filed to Congress that the death toll from Maria was much higher than the official total.
The researchers estimated the number of excess deaths by analyzing death certificates and other mortality data, and comparing the number of deaths during the designated period with past mortality patterns. They calculated the total number of deaths in the period was 22% higher than the number of fatalities that would have been expected, the researchers said.
In analyzing Puerto Rico’s death-certification process, the study found that listed causes of death included cardiac arrest, respiratory failure and septicemia. But researchers concluded that such causes were sometimes misassigned, with physicians failing to link the deaths to the hurricane.
The Milken Institute School of Public Health, which conducted the study, on Thursday issued a statement saying it stood by the science of its report, which it said was “carried out with complete independence and freedom from any kind of interference.”
Mr. Rosselló responded to Mr. Trump’s tweet by reiterating his administration’s confidence in the George Washington University study and its estimated death count.
“The victims and the people of Puerto Rico do not deserve to have their pain questioned,” Mr. Rosselló said. “They deserve recognition of that impact by our president…We strongly denounce anyone who would use this disaster or question our suffering for political purposes.”
Mr. Rosselló also asked Mr. Trump to ensure that federal agencies invest the necessary resources to help the island recover.
The Trump administration faced criticism for its relief efforts in Puerto Rico from lawmakers in both parties, who have said the White House was too slow to respond in the wake of the hurricane and didn’t send enough people to the island to rebuild infrastructure and speed medical supplies, food and water to communities there.
Weeks before Maria hit, Puerto Rico’s electricity grid had been hit hard when Hurricane Irma passed off the island’s north coast, knocking out power for more than 1 million people. Thousands who lost power during Irma never had it restored before Maria hit.
Puerto Rico didn’t restore power to many parts of the island until last month, meaning some residents on the island lacked power for nearly a year after the hurricane.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruztweeted to the president on Thursday: “Shame on you,” including a picture of his tweet. She added: “Damn it: this is NOT about politics this was always about SAVING LIVES.”
Lawmakers in both parties on Thursday criticized the president’s tweet, with some casting blame on the federal government’s relief efforts for the high death toll. “You’re right, Mr. President,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) said in a tweet. “The hurricane didn’t kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did.”
“Casualties don’t make a person look bad,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) said of the president’s tweets, adding that he visited the island and he believes the analysis done on the death toll.
“I have no reason to dispute those numbers. Those are just the facts when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated island,” he said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a staunch ally of the president who is running for Senate, tweeted: “I disagree with @POTUS—an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed.” He added: “The extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching.” And Rep. Ron DeSantis, who won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Florida with Mr. Trump’s endorsement, issued a statement saying “he doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated.”
Nearly 12 hours after Mr. Trump’s tweets, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley issued a statement praising the administration’s “unprecedented support” for Puerto Rico. Mr. Gidley said the president’s tweets were “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.”
Ms. Yulín Cruz had criticized Mr. Trump’s comments earlier in the week describing his administration’s response in Puerto Rico as a “success.” On Tuesday, she tweeted: “Can you imagine what he thinks failure looks like?”
Last month, following the release of the report, the White House released a statement from press secretary Sarah Sanders saying the government “has been, and will continue to be, supportive of Mr. Rosselló’s efforts to ensure a full accountability and transparency of fatalities resulting from last year’s hurricanes.”
A report earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office described the government as “down to the bottom of the barrel” in staffing by the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, citing a series of other hurricanes and catastrophic wildfires last year that overwhelmed federal disaster responders. The report said the GAO has a number of audits pending that will analyze issues such as the restoration of power in Puerto Rico.
Mr. Trump earlier this week described his administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico as an “unsung success.”
The researchers pointed to several problems in the death-certification process that contributed to the island government’s initial undercounting of fatalities. Among them were a lack of training for physicians on how to certify deaths after a natural disaster and the government’s lack of communication about proper death-certificate reporting before the 2017 hurricane season.
Mr. Trump’s tweets Thursday came as Hurricane Florencehurtles toward the East Coast. The president, whose calendar has been cleared for the day in light of the coming storm, spent the morning tweeting attacks on the JP Morgan Chase & Co. chief executive and complaining about the Russia investigation.
Of Florence, he warned: “Be careful!”
Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at [email protected]