On Thursday morning, President Trump tweeted that the nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans who died as a result of Hurricane Maria is a fake-news conspiracy drummed up by Democrats to make him look bad. “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” he tweeted before blaming the death toll on the Democrats.
3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. 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…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
…..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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
The tweets come as the East Coast braces for Hurricane Florence, which has reignited criticism of the Trump administration’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria last summer. This August, an independent study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government found the death toll to be 2,975. The figure was accepted as official by both Puerto Rico and the United States. Contrary to what the president alleges, the count does not factor in Puerto Ricans who died of old age or other causes unrelated to the storm. Many feel the official count is a conservative number. A study conducted by Harvard estimated the that over 4,600 deaths can be linked Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
George Washington University, which conducted the study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government, responded to Trump’s tweets on Thursday afternoon. “We are confident that the number — 2,975 — is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date,” the university wrote.
JUST IN: Researchers at GWU respond to Trump’s tweet on Puerto Rico deaths saying “we stand by the science underlying our study.” pic.twitter.com/I8FP2PbpIO
— Joshua Hoyos (@JoshuaHoyos) September 13, 2018
While visiting Puerto Rico in the weeks following the storm, the president cited the “official” death toll, which at the time was 16, as a reason for the island to be “very proud.” He went on to describe Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in the death of just over 1,800 people, as a “real catastrophe” relative to what happened in Puerto Rico. When the president left the island, thousands were still without electricity, water and other supplies necessary for survival. Support from the United States was slow and confused. In July, FEMA released an internal report that admitted failure on a number of fronts. Earlier this week, Trump described FEMA’s efforts as an “unsung success” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done,” while tweeting that “we got A Pluses.”
For those still in doubt, Trump on Tuesday told people to “ask the governor” about how successful the response was. “The historical relationship between Puerto Rico and Washington is unfair and unAmerican,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló wrote in a statement released the same day. “It is certainly not a successful relationship. This was the worst natural disaster in our modern history. Our basic infrastructure was devastated, thousands of our people lost their lives and many others still struggle.” He criticized the president again on Thursday.
"How can we be the standard bearer of democracy in the world if we don't value democracy in our own backyard?," Gov. Rossello says. "After the storm, it was evident that the treatment given in Florida or Texas was very different than the treatment given in Puerto Rico." (via CBS) pic.twitter.com/PRYoLCqJZ8
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) September 13, 2018
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who on Wednesday Trump described as “incompetent,” issued a series of tweets in both English and Spanish after the president questioned the death toll. “This is what denial following neglect looks like: Mr Pres in the real world people died on your watch. YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING!,” she wrote in one. “Simply put: delusional, paranoid, and unhinged from any sense of reality. Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT,” read another.
Politicians in the United States have been quick to respond to the tweets, as well. “Casualties don’t make a person look bad, so I have no reason to dispute these numbers,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told reporters on Thursday. “It’s an isolated island that lost its infrastructure and power for a long time.”
“That is really no one’s fault,” Ryan added. “That is just what happened.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whose state is home to more than one million Puerto Ricans, issued a similarly feckless response. “These days even tragedy becomes political,” he tweeted. “3k more Americans died in #PuertoRico after Hurricane than during comparable periods before. Both Fed & local gov made mistakes. We all need to stop the blame game & focus on recovery, helping those still hurting & fixing the mistakes.”
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is currently running for governor of the state, called out President Trump by name, while Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), wrote that the president’s comments were “shameful” and that “we deserve and expect more from someone who holds the highest office in our country.” Republican Governor Rick Scott, who is vying for Nelson’s Senate seat, only managed that he and the president “disagree” about the death toll. Gillum’s Republican opponent, former U.S. representative Ron DeSantis, released a statement noting that he “doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated.”
No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from @realDonaldTrump before, during, and after the hurricane.
— Andrew Gillum (@AndrewGillum) September 13, 2018
Several Democratic leaders weighed, as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) wondered why Trump doesn’t “help her rebuild the island, new housing, good schools and sustainable energy” instead of blaming others. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) wrote, “You’re right, Mr. President. The Hurricane didn’t kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-MD) criticized both Trump and Republicans, who she wrote are “determined to shield his insulting behavior from accountability.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted a series of firsthand accounts from distressed Puerto Ricans, before calling on the president to “start helping.”
US citizens were asking you for help after Hurricane Maria, @realDonaldTrump. We’ve spent the past year trying to get you and your Administration to give Puerto Ricans the assistance they deserve. Here’s a list – start anywhere. Start helping. pic.twitter.com/5kUQ7nHIfA
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) September 13, 2018
The Republican leaders called out by Pelosi have largely remained silent, just as they have been throughout the administration’s sluggish response to Maria, which as Chris Hayes of MSNBC wrote Thursday, warrants a Congressional investigation. “The important thing to focus on here is we still don’t have a thorough accounting of how and why 3000 fellow Americans were left to die,” he wrote, “and as long as the GOP controls both houses of Congress, we won’t get one.”
“Spoke to more than a dozen House Rs here at the Capitol. Very few had any criticism of the president’s handling of the coming storm or his tweets on P.R.,” the Washington Post‘s Robert Costa tweeted. “Most offered hearty praise.”
The GOP’s ability to retain control of the Senate and the House of Representatives this November will at least partially depend on the percentage of Americans who actually believe Trump when he makes such outlandish claims. The president has waged a war against unfavorable, or “fake,” news coverage, from reports about the Russia investigation, to reports of turmoil within the White House, to reports of his racism. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that his pathological need to protect his own ego has now led him to deny the deaths of close to 3,000 American citizens. It is, though, because no matter how callous Trump reveals himself to be on a daily basis, it’s still difficult to accept that the president truly does not care about anyone or anything outside of himself. His lack of empathy is boundless in a way that is impossible for a normal person to fully comprehend. The people of the Carolinas can only hope that Florence is not as devastating to the East Coast as Maria was to Puerto Rico. The president will be there to help only as far as it serves himself.