Trump rebuked after questioning number of deaths attributed to Hurricane Maria

Utility poles and lines were toppled on a road after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year.
Utility poles and lines were toppled on a road after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year. (Associated Press/File 2017)

WASHINGTON — President Trump drew widespread rebukes Thursday — including from several fellow Republicans— after falsely claiming that the number of deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria had been inflated by Democrats to ‘‘make me look as bad as possible.’’

In morning tweets, Trump took issue with the findings of a sweeping report released last month by George Washington University that estimated there were 2,975 ‘‘excess deaths’’ in the six months after the storm made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017.

Trump said on Twitter that ‘‘they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths’’ when he visited the island about two weeks after the storm.


‘‘As time went by it did not go up by much,’’ Trump wrote. ‘‘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’s tweets — which came as a highly dangerous Hurricane Florence churned toward the Carolinas — misrepresented the nature of the study and were harshly criticized by Democrats in Congress, as well as by some Republicans.

Representative Ileana Ros Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, told reporters she believes the figure of nearly 3,000 is sound.

‘‘What kind of mind twists that statistic into ‘Oh, fake news is trying to hurt my image,’ ’’ she said. ‘‘How can you be so self-centered and try to distort the truth so much? It’s mind boggling.’’

Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican whose Senate bid has been endorsed by Trump, said in a tweet that he disagreed with the president, relaying that ‘‘an independent study said thousands were lost’’ and that he had been to Puerto Rico seven times and ‘‘saw the devastation firsthand.’’


In a statement, Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, called on Trump to ‘‘resign at once.’’

‘‘The fact that the president will not take responsibility for his administration’s failures and will not even recognize that thousands have perished shows us, once again, that he is not fit to serve as our president,’’ Thompson said.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who publicly pleaded with Trump for a stronger response to the storm, also blasted the president.

‘‘President Trump’s statement, questioning the deaths in Puerto Rico, shows a lack of respect for our reality and our pain,’’ she said in a statement. ‘‘He simply is unable to grasp the human suffering that his neglect and lack of sensibility have caused us. 3000 people died on his watch and his inability to grasp that makes him dangerous.’’

During a news conference on Capitol Hill later Thursday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, avoided directly criticizing Trump but said he had no reason to dispute the study’s findings.

‘‘This was a function of a devastating storm hitting an isolated island, and that is really no one’s fault,’’ Ryan said. ‘‘The casualties mounted for a long time, and I have no reason to dispute those numbers.’’

Carlos Santos-Burgoa, the principal investigator of the GWU study and a professor in the Department of Global Health, said Friday afternoon that he and his colleagues were unbiased in their work and received no political pressure from Democrats or anyone else to come up with a high estimate of storm-related deaths.


‘‘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,’’ Santos-Burgoa told The Washington Post. ‘‘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.’’

In his tweets, Trump thoroughly mischaracterized how the GWU researchers came up with the figure of 2,975 excess deaths. They did not, contrary to the president’s claim, attribute any specific individual’s death to Hurricane Maria. Given the methodology, there was not an opportunity to misclassify someone who died from old age, as Trump suggested.

Rather, the GWU study looked at the number of deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 and compared that total to what would have been expected based on historical patterns. They factored in many variables, including the departure of hundreds of thousands of island residents in the aftermath of Maria.

A clear pattern emerged from the analysis: The mortality rate spiked in the months after the storm, particularly in the poorest areas of Puerto Rico, and among elderly males.

The unusually high death rate never completely reached the normal level even after six months, the researchers found — a sign of Puerto Rico’s continued struggle to deal with the effects of the hurricane.


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.

Earlier this week, Trump hailed his administration’s response to Maria as ‘‘an incredible, unsung success.’’

It was ‘‘one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,’’ Trump told reporters in the Oval Office as he was receiving a briefing on Hurricane Florence.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency itself has acknowledged that it was ill-prepared for the storm.