President Trump’s baseless claim Thursday that Democrats rigged the Hurricane Maria death toll was so stunning it’s even brought criticism from Republicans.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for one, tweeted that after seeing the devastation from the storm last October and the “heart-wrenching” loss of life across Puerto Rico, he couldn’t agree with Trump’s assertion that the death toll was a made-up, political ploy by Democrats to “make him look bad.” The count of nearly 3,000 deaths — 46 times more than the official toll of 64 — came from a government-commissioned study done by George Washington University and released two weeks ago.
But Trump had tweeted early Thursday that those numbers were “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!”
Scott, a Republican also campaigning for Senate, upheld the study numbers: “I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed,” he 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. I'll continue to help PR.”
Thousands of displaced Puerto Ricans are now living in Florida, as well as other states.
The GWU study, commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico to give a more accurate death toll that reflected fatalities in Maria’s aftermath, showed that 2,975 Puerto Ricans died as a result. The difference between this study and the government’s earliest estimate of 64 deaths, though, was that the GW researchers took into account what happened to the ailing residents in the months they were without power, clean water, or adequate health facilities.
Puerto Rico Gov. Rossello said his constituents have been treated like “second-class citizens” during an interview on CBS Thursday. Rossello reaffirmed they’re using the George Washington data as the basis for their official death toll.
The Republican candidate in Florida’s gubernatorial race, Ron. DeSantis, also “doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” according to Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for his campaign.
“Ron DeSantis is committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community, especially after such a tragic loss of life,” Lawson said in an emailed statement.
And House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan said during a press conference that he had “no reason to dispute” the most recent death toll.
“This was a horrible storm,” he added. “I toured the entire island … Roads were washed out, power was gone, and the casualties mounted for a long time.”
Other responses — particularly from Democrats in states that have previously been ravaged by hurricanes — were more loaded.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, called for the president’s resignation over the string of tweets, saying Trump’s failure to recognize the facts showed he’s unfit to serve as president.
“He should resign at once – and this Republican-led Congress must stop being complacent and finally conduct a comprehensive investigation–as we did after Katrina–into how 2,975 were allowed to die,” he said in a statement.
And Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, a Democrat from Illinois, spoke on the House floor first thing Thursday morning to respond to Trump’s tweet, adding George Washington University’s research was “meticulous.” Sen. Dick Durbin, also a Democrat from Illinois, said on Twitter Thursday that Trump’s accusations “fly in the face of what we know happened to our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.”
“With 3,000 people dead, for the president to say that Puerto Rico was a success — a triumph of the Trump presidency — is simply delusional,” Gutiérrez said.
"Even though the president dropped the ball, he is now doing a victory dance in the end zone. Or should we call it the dead zone?" Gutiérrez said.
Rep. Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat, also charged that Trump was dancing on the graves of Puerto Ricans with his disparaging comments on Twitter.
“Mr. President: We had nearly 3000 Americans die in Puerto Rico due to your slow, failed response to Hurricane Maria,” Soto said on Twitter. “And now you dance on their graves to disguise your tragic incompetence. America deserves better!”
The university's Milken Institute School of Public Health stands by its work, telling VICE News: "We are confident that the number — 2,975 — is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date."
Cover: A woman places one of the hundreds of shoes in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rico Capitol, in San Juan, Friday, June 1, 2018. Puerto Rico's Institute of Statistics announced that it has sued the U.S. territory's health department and demographic registry seeking to obtain data on the number of deaths following Hurricane Maria as a growing number of critics accuse the government of lacking transparency. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)