Pilloried for this risible claim, which he made on Tuesday, Trump predictably fired back on Thursday. Incredibly enough, he denied that nearly 3,000 people had died. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths,” he tweeted. The increase in the death toll, he continued, “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.”
Like most conspiracy theories, this one makes no sense. The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, isn’t even a Democrat — he’s a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. By increasing the official death toll, he is not just making Trump look bad — he is making himself look bad, too, not only for possible mismanagement of the hurricane response but also for releasing such unrealistically low fatality figures initially.
Rosselló actually praised Trump effusively after the hurricane — and Trump returned the favor, calling Rosselló “a great guy and leader who is working really hard.” Trump reserved his vitriol for San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who had denounced the poor federal response to the hurricane. So now Rosselló has gone from a “a great guy” to a participant in an anti-Trump conspiracy. The only people who will believe this are the same ones who believe it’s not really Trump’s voice on the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he is heard bragging about groping women.
Needless to say, the reason the death toll has been revised upward is not because of any conspiracy. It’s because better information has been gathered than was available in the chaotic days after Hurricane Maria hit — and, sadly, because more people died as a result of the devastating damage to the island’s infrastructure. It took more than 11 months, for example, to fully restore electricity.
George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health, working with the University of Puerto Rico, conducted a study of “excess mortality” in the aftermath of Maria: i.e., the number of people who actually died beyond the number that would normally have been expected to die in that period. The study concluded that excess mortality between September 2017 and February 2018 was between 2,658 to 3,290 dead. The midpoint estimate — 2,975 deaths — has been accepted by the government of Puerto Rico as the official death toll. That’s actually lower than the estimate published by Harvard researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine — 4,645 — but it still puts Maria’s death toll on a par with 9/11, whose 17th anniversary we just commemorated. Was that an incredible success, too?
No one suggests that Trump was primarily responsible for the deaths in Puerto Rico. Clearly, a lot of factors — including the inadequacy of local infrastructure, the sheer difficulty of providing help to an island, and the mistakes of local government — contributed to the ghastly death toll. But the federal government and its leader bear their share of culpability. As The Post reported on Sept. 29, 2017, the president was initially attentive when Hurricane Maria made landfall on Wednesday, Sept. 20, but not for long: “For four days after that — as storm-ravaged Puerto Rico struggled for food and water amid the darkness of power outages — Trump and his top aides effectively went dark themselves.” Trump, the story noted, spent a “long weekend” at his golf club and attended a political rally in Alabama.
When Trump was criticized for his lackadaisical response, he added insult to injury by blasting the mayor of San Juan for “poor leadership ability.” He also trafficked in racist stereotypes about lazy Latinos by suggesting that people in Puerto Rico “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” When Trump finally visited the ravaged island, he left a lasting image by tossing paper towels at survivors as if they were trained seals. The U.S. Government Accountability Office subsequently found numerous failures on the part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), including a lack of trained personnel, equipment and supplies in Puerto Rico.
Remember the political damage that President George W. Bush suffered because of his mishandling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005? He was particularly pilloried for being out of touch when he praised FEMA Director Michael Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he said. Bush could at least plead that he did not know the full extent of FEMA’s failure (1,833 people died in Katrina) when he made that unfortunate comment. What’s Trump’s excuse?
Here we are, nearly a year after Maria, and he is still claiming that the federal government did a heck of a job, despite all evidence to the contrary. Brown was forced out of office for his failure. No one has been held accountable for Maria. Instead Trump is taking victory laps for his handling of the hurricane. It’s time to declare the White House a disaster area and take the appropriate constitutional measures to rescue the republic from Trump’s flagrant mismanagement and appalling misconduct. Heck of a job, Trumpie.