New York Times

Rejecting Puerto Rican Death Toll, Trump Accuses Democrats of Inflating It

Rejecting Puerto Rican Death Toll, Trump Accuses Democrats of Inflating It

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President Trump during his visit in Puerto Rico last year.CreditCreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

By Eileen Sullivan, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Nicholas Fandos

President Trump on Thursday falsely accused Democrats of inflating the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, rejecting that government’s assessment that the storm had claimed nearly 3,000 lives.

Mr. Trump stated that the toll was only six to 18 dead after his visit following the storm and said Democrats padded the death toll by including, for example, a person who died of old age “in order to make me look as bad as possible.”

The president’s comments came as the government prepared for Hurricane Florence, whose high winds were already beginning to batter the coast of the Carolinas.

Hurricanes typically provide a platform for elected officials to display leadership and strength. And a poor response, such as the government’s during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, can do significant damage to approval ratings. The federal government’s response to the storm that hit Puerto Rico has been viewed as inadequatefull power was restored to homes in August.

“There is evidence, truthful facts that there have been these number of deaths. No one is distorting the truth,” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a retiring Miami Republican, said on Thursday. “It might be a new low,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said of the president’s false claim about the Puerto Rican death toll, adding that only a “warped mind that would turn this statistic into fake news” about himself.

Representative Carlos Curbelo, also a Republican of South Florida, said he did not understand why Mr. Trump would inaccurately state the number of people who died.

“We should all be focused on what is about to happen in the Carolinas and not politicize hurricanes and hurricane relief,” Mr. Curbelo said.

“These days even tragedy becomes political,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said in a Twitter post on Thursday. Mr. Rubio said 3,000 Americans died in Puerto Rico after the hurricane and said federal and local governments both made mistakes.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, sidestepped questions on Thursday about the president’s claim.

Mr. Trump took to Twitter this week to warn residents in the path of Hurricane Florence to follow the advice of local officials and to be prepared. He also repeated his assessment that his team got high marks for the responses to hurricanes in 2017 and called the mayor of San Juan, who has been critical of Mr. Trump, “totally incompetent.”

Mr. Trump was criticized last year for a slow response to Puerto Rico, where the distribution of supplies, gas and food lagged and power outages lasted for months, particularly compared with a swift and efficient response to an earlier hurricane, Harvey, that hit Texas. It was six days after Hurricane Maria hit the island before he pledged to go there, even as he traveled to Texas four days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

The death toll in Puerto Rico has changed in the past year. It had been officially recorded as 64, for nearly a year, despite convincing evidence that the figure was too low because official death certificates had failed to take into account the long-range impacts of the storm. In August, after a thorough review, Puerto Rican officials accepted a revised estimate of the dead as 2,975.

The National Hurricane Center, a federal agency, called the death toll “highly uncertain” in an April report and logged the official number at 65. The report noted “hundreds of additional indirect deaths in Puerto Rico may eventually be attributed to Maria’s aftermath pending the results of an official government review.”

Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker, said on Thursday that he had no reason to “dispute” the higher number of people estimated to have died in Puerto Rico, but avoided directly criticizing Mr. Trump. Mr. Ryan said of the collapse of the island’s infrastructure, “That is really no one’s fault. That is just what happened.”

On Tuesday, the president praised himself and his team for an “incredibly successful” job done in Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria. In July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency published a report, noting empty warehouses and not enough qualified staff in position to respond to the disaster. It did not include a fatality count, citing an ongoing review by the Puerto Rican government.

Thomas P. Bossert, Mr. Trump’s former homeland security adviser, said in an interview on Wednesday that attributing the thousands of deaths in Puerto Rico purely to the storm was a tricky business — a view that is privately held by many still serving in the Trump administration.

“The people that died — thousands of people — it’s terrible, but it’s always difficult to talk about the causality of that death,” Mr. Bossert said. He argued that the link between some of the fatalities reported and the storms might have been “correlative, and not necessarily causal,” such as in the case of a person with a heart condition who died in the months afterward because of lack of sufficient access to clean water, electricity or medical care.

In the weeks after Hurricane Maria, Mr. Bossert defended the government’s response and blamed the media for portraying “the appearance that we’re not moving fast enough.”

On Wednesday, however, he conceded that the president’s self-congratulation about his administration’s handling of the storm should have been tempered with compassion.

“The missing part was empathy,” said Mr. Bossert, who was forced out of the administration earlier this year. “I wish he’d paused and expressed that, instead of just focusing on the response success.”

While Mr. Trump on Thursday accused the Democrats of “bad politics,” Democratic lawmakers seized on the president’s inaccurate facts.

“You’re right, Mr. President. The Hurricane didn’t kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did,” Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, said in a Twitter post. The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, of California, said in a tweet that the president “prefers his ‘alternative facts’ to the tragedy faced by families of the lost.”

Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, called for the president to resign on Thursday. In a statement, Mr. Thompson said, “The fact that the President will not take responsibility for his administration’s failures and will not even recognize that thousands have perished shows us, once again, that he is not fit to serve as our president.”

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article misstated when electricity was fully restored in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Power was restored in August — last month — not this month. An earlier version also misidentified the government entity that revised the territory’s death toll. The revised toll of 2,975 was accepted by the Puerto Rican government, not the federal government.

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