Republicans who never investigated Puerto Rico deaths are now trying to look serious on the issue

The GOP has been so busy feeding the base by chasing conspiracy theories, they couldn't bother to check into why 3,000 Americans died.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) at his weekly press conference last week. CREDIT: by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the hours after President Donald Trump’s blatant lie to the nation about the death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, multiple Congressional Republicans made statements correcting his claim that the 3,000 death estimate was a Democratic conspiracy to make him look bad. But in the months after the disaster, they were too busy investigating the previous administration’s law enforcement efforts to bother examining why thousands of Americans were left to die.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), who has previously said he does not “pay that much attention” to Trump’s tweets, told reporters on Thursday that he believes the death toll number to be accurate.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told the press that Trump’s claim “might be a new low,” asking rhetorically, “How could you be so self-centered and try to distort the truth so much?”


Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) questioned Trump’s logic, saying, “We should all be focused on what is about to happen in the Carolinas and not politicize hurricanes and hurricane relief.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) acknowledged in a tweet that “3k more Americans died in #PuertoRico after Hurricane than during comparable periods before,” and called for a “focus on recovery, helping those still hurting & fixing the mistakes.”

Even a spokesperson for the fiercely pro-Trump Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who resigned his House seat days ago, put out a statement saying that the former Congressman “doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated.”

But while it’s become increasingly rare for Congressional Republicans to contradict their president — even when he’s so obviously deluded — they have not translated this brief display of rhetorical courage into any action, and have totally failed to address why the death toll was so high. Unlike the years of redundant investigations into the four deaths in 2012 in Benghazi, the thousands of lives lost in Puerto Rico were not a priority for the GOP majorities in the House and Senate. This despite repeated pleas by minority Democrats for hearings.

Back in June, 14 Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee requested a “timely” hearing into the “staggering loss of American life and the significant variance from officially reported figures points to the need for further oversight” from Maria (which occurred almost a year ago). A spokesperson for the committee’s Democrats told ThinkProgress the chairman did not do so.


“We are far from satisfied with the majority’s oversight response to Hurricane Maria’s impacts on Puerto Rico,” she said in an email. “They have been negligent and ignored the suffering and misery that Puerto Ricans faced in the aftermath of the storm. The majority’s focus in hearings so far has been on whether the Oversight Board is treating holders of Puerto Rican bonds fairly. To put it mildly, this is not the central issue in assisting Puerto Rico’s recovery, and the lack of oversight on reconstruction and public health has been an embarrassment to this Committee.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), one of the leaders of that effort, told ThinkProgress in an email that the majority need to act now.

“It is long past overdue that Congressional Republicans stand up to this President and call him out for his lies and distortions,” she wrote. “It is shameful that it took Donald Trump impugning the deaths of 3,000 of our fellow citizens to hear them even whimper their displeasure. If they truly wanted to address this issue, Speaker Ryan and Leader McCarthy could bring to the floor my legislation establishing a 9/11-style Commission to investigate the response to Maria and my bill, the COUNT Act, which would establish federal procedures for death tolls following disasters.”

It does not appear that the majority plans to do that, however. According to the Natural Resources Committee’s website, its only upcoming scheduled hearing for after Thursday is a September 17 oversight hearing titled “Historic Leasing in the National Park System: Assessing Challenges and Building on Successes.”