Published 10:51 AM EDT Sep 13, 2018
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump Thursday questioned an independent study that put the death toll from last year's catastrophic hurricane in Puerto Rico at nearly 3,000, calling the report an effort by Democrats to discredit him.
Trump's comments on Twitter triggered outrage from Democratic lawmakers and from San Juan's mayor, who called Trump's claim "delusional, paranoid, and unhinged."
Trump provided no evidence to back up his efforts to cast doubt on a report released last month and commissioned by Puerto Rico's government that examined the deaths caused by Hurricane Maria. Nor did Trump offer evidence that his political opponents had worked to skew it.
"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," Trump wrote on Twitter. "If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"
As his team braces for Hurricane Florence to hit the east coast, Trump has praised his previous responses to deadly storms – including Puerto Rico.
More: Trump calls Puerto Rico response 'unsung success,' despite nearly 3,000 dead
More: Florence: Hurricane poses new test for Trump as he brushes off criticism
More: Nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz responded: "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," Cruz wrote on Twitter.
Democrats on Capitol Hill blasted Trump.
“Only Donald Trump could see the tragedy in Puerto Rico and conclude that he is the victim," said Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. "May God bless the souls of the nearly 3,000 Americans that died in Puerto Rico and may he take pity on your soul Mr. President.”
Trump's Thursday morning tweets focused on a George Washington University study released last month that examined the toll from Hurricane Maria. From September 2017 to February 2018, 2,975 people died, according to that study, which was commissioned by Puerto Rico's government.
In addition to force of the hurricane itself, many people in Puerto Rico died because disease and infection due to the lack of electricity and drinkable water on the island. The storm destroyed homes and and crippled roads, bridges, and hospitals.
Trump also took heat after he visited Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Sept. 20, 2017, storm. The president tossed paper towels to Puerto Rican residents at a local relief center, angering storm victims and others who saw his actions as insensitive.
After his tweets Thursday, Democrats accused Trump of minimizing the death toll for callous political reasons.
Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor in Florida, expressed outrage over Trump's tweet.
“No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from @realDonaldTrump before, during, and after the hurricane.”
The House Democratic Caucus tweeted that Trump "won't acknowledge the thousands of Americans who died on his watch," and added: "Even worse, Republicans have no interest in holding this administration accountable and ensuring that Congress is prepared to respond to these disasters."
A report released this summer by the Federal Emergency Management Agency identified deficiencies in the administration’s response, including that the agency was not adequately staffed heading into the hurricane season. In the months leading up to Maria’s approach, FEMA had 10,683 people on hand, about 86 percent of the agency’s target, the report found.
The report found that the island itself was not prepared for such a storm, which contributed to widespread loss of power and communications – hampering the response.
A Government Accountability Office report last week confirmed many of those findings, and also noted that 54 percent of the FEMA workers deployed last year were serving in a role they were not qualified to perform. Staffing shortfalls complicated many aspects of the response, including the effort to move people into temporary housing in the mainland, the GAO found.
“The 2017 hurricanes and wildfires highlighted some longstanding issues and revealed other emerging response and recovery challenges,” the report said.