Trump says Puerto Rico death toll inflated by Democrats: '3000 people did not die'

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE on Thursday accused Democrats, without evidence, of inflating the 3,000-person death count from last year's hurricanes in Puerto Rico in order “to make me look bad.”

The stunning accusation is Trump's latest attempt to defend his handling of natural disasters as Hurricane Florence bears down on the Southeastern U.S.

In a pair of tweets, Trump disputed an independent report commissioned by Puerto Rico's government that raised the death toll from Hurricane Maria to 2,975.

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"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," Trump tweeted. "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."

The president said the number was manufactured "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!" he added.

Trump's latest comments drew an instant rebuke from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a vocal Trump critic, who accused the president of minimizing the plight of Puerto Rico.

"This is what denial following neglect looks like: Mr Pres in the real world people died on your watch. YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING!" she tweeted.

As he prepares for Hurricane Florence, Trump has repeatedly argued that his response to Hurricane Maria was a success, despite the record-high death toll, widespread devastation and power outages and intense criticism from local officials.

The president warned Americans in Florence's path to take precautions while meeting with federal officials to show his administration is ready for the potentially devastating storm. Trump canceled two campaign rallies to remain in Washington ahead of the hurricane.

But he has also made several remarks claiming he has not received proper credit for his response to Maria at a time when Puerto Ricans have given him very low marks for his handling of the storm.

A Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation study showed 80 percent of island residents disapprove of his response.

Trump's claims fly in the face of a George Washington University study commissioned by Puerto Rico's governor examining the effects of Maria in the six months following landfall in September 2017.

The long time period was used to determine the hurricane's lingering effect on deaths on the island. It compared the death rates in the post-hurricane period to other periods not affected by natural disasters.

Puerto Rico's government endorsed the results of the study once it was released and raised its official death toll, which previously sat at 64. Skeptics believed that number was too low, given that Maria resulted in widespread property damage, destroyed key infrastructure across the island and cut off access to basic services.

Nonetheless, Trump has sought to convince Americans that his account of the hurricane response is correct.

“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.

Those comments have reignited Trump's feud with Puerto Rican officials, including Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has typically avoided confrontations with the president.

“People are tired of seeing the catastrophe and devastation used for political purposes, whether it is a tweet or a statement,” Rosselló said in a Thursday interview with CBS News. “They really want to get results.”

The governor also called on Trump to redouble federal assistance for recovery efforts so that the island can fully recover.

“We are U.S. citizens. The federal government needs to do right by its U.S. citizens,” he said. 

Trump has struggled at playing the role of consoler in chief in times of national crisis. He drew criticism during his post-hurricane tour of Puerto Rico last October for throwing paper towels to people in a crowd and feuding with Cruz.

The president at the time downplayed the damage caused by Maria, saying it paled in comparison to a "real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina, which killed an estimated 1,800 people along the Gulf Coast in 2005. He also complained that federal relief efforts in Puerto Rico blew a hole in the federal budget.

"The missing part was empathy," Trump's former homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, said in an interview with The New York Times. "I wish he’d paused and expressed that, instead of just focusing on the response success."

Hurricane Florence has weakened slightly from a Category 3 to Category 2 storm. But it is expected to cause widespread property damages, millions of power outages and possible loss of life in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia.

Brett Samuels contributed to this report, which was updated at 11:14 a.m.