As Hurricane Florence churned toward the Carolinas, President Trump on Thursday diverted attention from the government’s preparations for the monster storm to his personal grievances over last year’s Hurricane Maria by falsely claiming a conspiracy to inflate the death toll in Puerto Rico.
The Trump administration came under sharp criticism for its recovery efforts after Maria, which devastated the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in September 2017, despite the president’s insistence this week that his handling of Maria was an “incredible, unsung success.”
With his Thursday statements, Trump sought to minimize the deaths of thousands of American citizens while appearing to shirk responsibility for the government’s performance in responding to natural disasters. He also sought refuge as he habitually does in conspiracy theories, claiming that a hidden hand was at work to sabotage him.
In so doing, Trump exposed political vulnerabilities for his party eight weeks before the midterm elections — particularly in Florida, where Puerto Rican immigrants make up a prized voting bloc. Republican candidates in the state’s hotly contested gubernatorial and Senate races distanced themselves from his comments.
“I disagree with @POTUS,” tweeted Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a Trump ally running for Senate. “I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand.”
Trump’s charge about the Puerto Rico storm — a humanitarian crisis that continues to affect life on the island a year later — baffled his advisers as well as officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who have been working to prepare the Carolinas for Hurricane Florence, the potentially deadly storm forecast to make landfall Friday.
Trump’s aides said they have tried to focus the president’s attention on Florence, noting that he has been engaged in daily disaster briefings and called governors, senators and other officials representing North Carolina and South Carolina. Officials have brought large, colored charts and graphs into the Oval Office to illustrate Florence’s dangerous path for Trump, who is a visual learner. And the president made a rare trip outside, to visit the staff of the National Security Council’s resilience office housed across the street in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he received phone calls from the president and other officials in what he characterized as an unprecedented level of outreach. Trump seemed interested in how hurricanes work and how Florence would land, calling it “a really nasty one.”
“His main question to me was, ‘What do you worry about the most?’ ” Graham said of Trump. “He said, ‘Why would anyone stay? Why would you stay?’ ”
'I'm not to blame'
Still, administration officials said, Trump has been easily distracted this week by cable news commentary about his mismanagement of Maria, as well as about revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear.” The president also is fixated on polls, an adviser said, telling aides this week that a CNN poll that showed his approval rating falling below 40 percent must have been of only Massachusetts residents.
Trump has been especially piqued by the replaying of footage of him throwing paper towels into a crowd of relief workers in Puerto Rico two weeks after Maria, an episode that has come to symbolize the president’s lack of empathy in the eyes of his critics.
“I’m not to blame for this,” one adviser recalled Trump saying in a private conversation about Maria. In such discussions, the president also has trashed the power company in Puerto Rico and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who in the storm’s immediate aftermath publicly pleaded with Trump for a stronger response and has harshly criticized the president.
Thursday morning on Twitter, Trump denied large-scale casualties from the Puerto Rico hurricane: “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.”
When Trump visited the island territory last October, officials told him in a briefing that 16 people had died from Maria. But Puerto Rican officials doubled the death toll to 34 later that day.
Trump’s tweet continued: “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. . . . 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!”
Trump thoroughly mischaracterized how the death toll of 2,975 was tallied in the study, conducted by George Washington University.
GWU researchers did not, contrary to his claim, attribute any specific individual’s death to Maria. Given the methodology, there was not an opportunity to misclassify someone who died of old age, as Trump suggested.
Rather, the study looked at the number of deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 and compared that total with what would have been expected based on historical patterns. The researchers factored in many variables, including the departure of hundreds of thousands of island residents in the aftermath of Maria.
Had the GWU researchers done what Trump claimed they did — attributing any death to Maria — the six-month death toll from the hurricane would have been 16,608.
Carlos Santos-Burgoa, principal investigator of the GWU study and a professor in the Department of Global Health, said he and his colleagues were unbiased in their work.
“We stand by the science underlying our study. It is rigorous. It’s state-of-the-art. We collected the data from the official sources. Everything can be validated,” he said. “We didn’t receive any pressure from anybody to go this way or that way. We wouldn’t do it. We are professionals of public health.”
Late Thursday, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley issued a statement in an attempt to quell outrage over the president’s tweet.
“As the President said, every death from Hurricane Maria is a horror,” he wrote, adding, “President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan Mayor who sadly, have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing out a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations.”
Historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a book on Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005 and is a black mark on President George W. Bush’s legacy, said presidents “cannot try to jerk people around on natural disasters because it inflames people.”
“Death is so visceral to people, and Trump is being cavalier and braggadocious about it,” Brinkley said. “Who in American history is going to say the Trump response to Hurricane Maria was an ‘A-plus’? Nobody.”
Trump’s brash comments on the deaths in Puerto Rico drew only scattered criticism among Republican lawmakers, underscoring the trepidation of most GOP politicians to cross a president who enjoys deep and solid support among the party’s base voters.
“I, frankly, haven’t gotten in the middle of that,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said when asked about Trump’s tweets.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters that he had “no reason to dispute” the death toll of nearly 3,000. “Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island,” he said.
Retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) was a rare vocal GOP critic. She called the president’s tweets on Puerto Rico “heartless” and said she would support a probe into the federal response to Hurricane Maria.
“It’s needlessly hurtful and absolutely wrong,” she said. “He’s casting doubt on the death count and making it about himself.”
But the quick defense of Trump from Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) was more reflective of the consensus among House Republicans. “I understand the president’s frustration about what was essentially a well-done job is now drawing new complaints,” he said.
Another House Republican argued that the media historically has been biased in assessing blame for natural disasters and defended Bush’s handling of Katrina.
“They don’t ever say Republicans handle hurricanes as well as Democrats when you talk to the press,” Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.) said. “I was a Bush guy, and he got hammered for Katrina when he in many cases did the right thing.”
Bush administration officials, however, publicly said they failed to adequately prepare for that hurricane.
Democrats were united in decrying Trump’s claims. They voiced bewilderment and outrage at the president’s behavior and vowed to use their subpoena power to investigate his administration’s response to Maria should they win the House majority.
“There aren’t enough adjectives and adverbs in the English language to describe my reaction,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said Democrats plan to make a case against Trump’s “competence” and continue to question this week’s finding that the Trump administration diverted nearly $10 million in funding for FEMA to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency implementing the president’s zero-tolerance immigration policy that led to children being separated from their parents.
Eighty percent of Puerto Ricans said Trump did a fair or poor job managing last year’s hurricane, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll published this week.
Graham explained Trump’s public comments about Puerto Rico by saying: “He feels attacked and put upon. When he’s attacked, he pushes back and feels like this story is politically motivated.”
Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer, said this is a pattern throughout the president’s life — even in grade school, when if teachers complained about his behavior he would act out rather than take responsibility.
“He has always — always — been terrified of having been found to be responsible for something, and the pursuit of alternative explanations has been intense at every step of his life,” D’Antonio said. “There had to be a conspiracy at work, some criminality, some hidden hand.”
Joel Achenbach, Ashley Parker and John Wagner contributed to this report.