POLITICS
09/13/2018 08:54 am ET Updated Sep 13, 2018

Donald Trump Denies That 3,000 People Died In Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

The president accused Democrats of making up "really large numbers" of deaths to make him "look as bad as possible."

President Donald Trump on Thursday denied back-to-back hurricanes last fall resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico, as estimated by a government-commissioned study last month.

In a pair of tweets, the president accused Democrats of making up “really large numbers” of deaths to make him “look as bad as possible.” There is no evidence to support his claim.

“When I left the island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths,” Trump tweeted about his first and only visit to Puerto Rico after hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled the island in September 2017. 

During his visit to the island, Trump had suggested Puerto Ricans were lucky Hurricane Maria wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.

The Puerto Rican government revised Hurricane Maria’s official death toll from 64 to 2,975 last month following the study, which was conducted by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Prior to the GWU study, independent investigations conducted separately by The New York Times, Penn State University and Harvard University also estimated Maria’s death toll to be in the thousands.

The Milken Institute defended its study in a statement Thursday.

“We stand by the science underlying our study,” the statement said. “This study, commissioned by the Government of Puerto Rico, was carried out with complete independence and freedom from any kind of interference.”

“Our results show that Hurricane Maria was a very deadly storm, one that affected the entire island but hit the poor and the elderly the hardest,” the statement continued. “We are confident that the number — 2,975 — is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date.”

Still, as Hurricane Florence bears down on the Carolinas, Trump has called the federal government’s response to the storms in Puerto Rico an “unsung success.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who pleaded with Trump to send additional aid in the aftermath of the historic storms, hit back at the president’s death toll denial on Thursday.

“People died on your watch,” Cruz tweeted. “YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING!”

Puerto Rican officials have said they always expected the death toll to be higher than 64, which they initially estimated using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention methodology, according to a statement released by Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety in August.

“We always anticipated that this number would increase as more official studies were conducted,” Héctor Pesquera, the department’s secretary, said in the statement. Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló ordered an independent study of the death toll in January because he said that “CDC guidelines proved insufficient to account for mortality in the worst natural disaster Puerto Rico has ever seen.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) on Thursday tweeted that he “disagreed” with Trump’s eyebrow-raising denial of the death toll.

“An independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed,” Scott tweeted. “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.” 

In a statement Thursday, Rosselló slammed Trump’s death toll denial and condemned “anyone who would use this disaster or question our suffering for political purposes.”

“The people of Puerto Rico deserve a full accounting of the impact of the storm, and they deserve recognition of that impact by our president,” Rosselló said. “I asked the president to recognize the magnitude of Hurricane Maria ... Good government means a commitment to transparency and rectifying mistakes made.”

Rosselló, during an appearance earlier Thursday on CBS News, blasted the federal government for providing more resources to Floridians and Texans affected by hurricanes than to Puerto Ricans.

“We are second-class U.S. citizens,” Rosselló said. “We live in a colonial territory. It is time to eliminate that. I implore all of the elected officials, particularly now with midterm elections, to have a firm stance: You’re either for colonial territories or against it. You’re either for giving equal rights to the U.S. citizens that live in Puerto Rico or you’re against it.”

Erika Larose and Julie Piñero contributed reporting.

This article has been updated to include Rosselló’s statement.

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