US President Donald Trump claimed on Thursday that the death toll from hurricanes that lashed Puerto Rico last year was cooked up by opposition Democrats to hurt him politically.
Trump responded on Twitter to a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government that estimated the death toll connected to Maria at 2,975.
The study looked beyond the 64 deaths officially attributed to the immediate impact of the storm to examine how many were connected with the hurricane from the time it struck on September 20, 2017 to six months afterwards.
Trump said the nearly 3,000 deaths counted in the study were not people who died in Maria and Irma, another powerful storm that last year clipped the US territory, whose residents are US citizens. The president went to Puerto Rico after Maria hit to observe recovery efforts.
“When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths,” Trump said on Twitter. “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.”
He added that the new, much higher death toll 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.”
He suggested that people who died from old age were added to the storm’s death toll. “Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares said the territory would not allow Maria to be “politicized.”
“Puerto Rico suffered a terrible tragedy in the hands of the hurricane Maria and we energetically denounce anyone who uses this disaster or questions our suffering for political ends,” the governor said in a statement.
“The victims and the people of Puerto Rico do not deserve their pain to be questioned. We are still mourning the loss of lives caused by the hurricane,” he added.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz responded to Trump’s tweets with one of her own.
“Damn it: this is NOT about politics this was always about SAVING LIVES,” she said.
Earlier she told NBC News that the response to Maria on Puerto Rico was something to be proud of “if your bar is this low,” indicating a level well below her waist.
“If you have a heart you should never be proud of it,” she said, citing her efforts to sound the alarm after the storm.
“Out of the top of my lungs I screamed to everyone that would listen that we were dying here,” she said.
The study that put the death toll at nearly 3,000 was conducted by George Washington University in an attempt to gauge the lingering, indirect effects Maria had on mortality. It looked at the total number of deaths from September 2017 through February 2018, comparing the number with typical death rates.
Trump’s tweets about the study drew rebukes from members of Congress.
Representative Ileana Ros Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, said she believes the figure of nearly 3,000 is sound.
“What kind of mind twists that statistic into ‘Oh, fake news is trying to hurt my image?'” Lehtinen asked, according to the Washington Post. “How can you be so self-centred and try to distort the truth so much? It’s mind boggling.”