Trump pushes conspiracy theory denying Puerto Rico hurricane death toll

President Trump advanced a new conspiracy theory on Thursday morning: blaming Democrats, without evidence, for the staggering death toll from Hurricane Maria, which slammed into Puerto Rico one year ago.

“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Trump tweeted. “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.”

The president 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!”

The official Hurricane Maria death toll per the Puerto Rican government is 2,975, revised up in August from the initial 64. That number, calculated by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, is lower than a Harvard study released in May, which put the number at 4,645. Either number would make Maria, which hit last September, the deadliest natural disaster in the United States in over a century.

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Leah Millis/Reuters, Gerald Herbert/AP
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Leah Millis/Reuters, Gerald Herbert/AP

Trump’s declaration that few people had died when he left the island is false. There were contemporaneous reports from the ground that funeral homes were overcrowded and further reporting months later that people were still dying due to the slow response. Earlier this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released a letter from the FEMA director stating that more than 2,000 Puerto Ricans applied for funeral assistance in the wake of the hurricane. The agency approved just 75.

Trump has denied any responsibility for the slow response to the island’s difficulties and the death of hundreds if not thousands of Americans, blaming Puerto Rico’s electrical grid. He initially said it was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina and urged Puerto Ricans not to believe the stories they were hearing. The federal response to the storm has been criticized, particularly in contrast to the relief effort in Texas following Hurricane Harvey.

The president’s conspiratorial tweets about the death toll from Maria came as Hurricane Florence was bearing down on the southeastern coast of the United States.

During a briefing on Florence at the White House earlier this week, Trump said the Puerto Rican response was “incredibly successful” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.” He has cited the difficulty of moving things to an island that is 1,150 miles from the coast of Florida.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, was one of many critics of Trump’s death toll theory:

She was joined by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello:

Ron DeSantis, the former GOP congressman who is the Republican candidate for governor in Florida, said he did not believe the loss of life had been inflated.

His Democratic opponent, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, said Puerto Ricans deserved better.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who is up for reelection in November, called the comments “shameful.”

His opponent, current Gov. Rick Scott, disagreed with the president.

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