President Trump came under heavy criticism on Thursday after he rejected the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from last year's Hurricane Maria and instead blamed Democrats for inflating the numbers to make him "look as bad as possible."
As Hurricane Florence bears down on the Carolinas, Trump ignited a fresh controversy over his administration's response to the Category 4 storm that smashed into the U.S. territory last September. Trump visited the island in early October to assess the situation amid widespread criticism over the recovery efforts.
"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," Trump tweeted.
He added: "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."
Puerto Rico's governor last month raised Maria's official death toll from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study found that the number of people who succumbed in the sweltering aftermath had been severely undercounted. Previous reports from the Puerto Rican government said the number was closer to 1,400.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley responded Thursday night: "As the President said, every death from Hurricane Maria is a horror. Before, during, and after the two massive hurricanes, the President directed the entire Administration to provide unprecedented support to Puerto Rico. 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."
Trump’s tweets – coming on the heels of his defense earlier this week of his administration’s response to last year’s hurricane – was quickly lambasted by Democratic lawmakers, with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., calling the president "delusional" and incapable of "empathy or basic human decency."
“Even though the president dropped the ball, he is now doing a victory dance in the end zone,” Gutierrez, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, said in a speech on the House floor. “Or should we call it the dead zone?"
Trump's comments also drew swift condemnation from elected officials and residents of the island, where blackouts remain common, 60,000 homes still have makeshift roofs and 13 percent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service.
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a Facebook post in Spanish, "the victims of Puerto Rico, and the people of Puerto Rico in general, do not deserve to be questioned about their pain."
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a Democrat who has sparred with Trump multiple times, tweeted that "Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT."
In New York, which has the largest Puerto Rican population in the mainland United States, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Trump’s tweets “a disgusting insult to the families of those who died.”
“The President is telling lies to the world to cover up his abdication of duty to the people of Puerto Rico,” Cuomo said in a statement. "You can't govern via conspiracy theory. The American people — which, yes Mr. President, includes Puerto Ricans — deserve better."
Even members of Trump’s own party were quick to distance themselves from the president’s tweet and draw the topic back to the impending arrival of Hurricane Florence.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said he has “no reason to dispute” the numbers of those who died.
“Those are just the facts of what happens,” Ryan added. “That’s really no one’s fault. It’s what happened.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he was unsure about the death toll in Puerto Rico and questioned whether the loss of life was the “result of the hurricane itself or inability to get food or water afterward.”
Graham, whose state looks to take the brunt of Hurricane Florence’s impact, added: “I think it’s a tragedy that anybody dies through a natural disaster. That the President has been really good about helping South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, I don’t buy the idea that the President is indifferent to our friends in Puerto Rico. I don’t buy that but I do believe we can learn from the mistakes that were made in Puerto Rico.”