ThinkProgress

Trump responds to new Puerto Rico death toll: ‘I think we did a fantastic job’

CREDIT: Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

During a press gaggle Wednesday, President Trump bragged that the federal government had done a “fantastic job” with recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year. On Tuesday, Puerto Rico’s government had revised the death toll from 64 to 2,975 following a study from George Washington University.

In his comments, Trump attempted to manage expectations, claiming that the island’s power plant was already “dead,” “shut,” and “bankrupt” before the hurricanes even hit. He also insisted that recovery was slower than similar efforts in Florida and Texas based on the mere fact that they are land-based whereas Puerto Rico is an island.

Shortly after Trump’s remarks, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz spoke to MSNBC about the new death toll, calling it “a very painful day and shameful day for Puerto Rico” and blaming Trump directly for those deaths.

“We died because bureaucracy and inefficiency took a hold of things,” she said. “We died because many in the political class in Puerto Rico decided to dance to Donald Trump’s tune rather than doing what everybody ought to do, which is tell the truth, no matter how might the person you’re telling the truth to seems.” She accused Trump of being “incapable of feeling solidarity and empathy.”

Responding to Trump’s newest comments about the power plant having already been closed, Cruz bluntly called it a lie. “He just simply is lying through his teeth,” she said. While she acknowledged that there had been power generation issues, she insisted, “We had electricity before Maria came.”

“This is just like telling somebody that’s gone through a fire that it’s their fault that they didn’t run fast enough,” she said. “You left us here to die because you were more concerned about the political spin than about the human reality that we were dying.”

Cruz is correct that, contrary to Trump’s claim, Puerto Rico did have power before the hurricane. The power grid was weak, but it was at least still functional.

The study that provides the new death toll estimate further corroborates Cruz’s criticism that political motivations disincentivized officials from producing an accurate tally of fatalities. Gov. Ricardo Rossello even admitted, “I agree I made mistakes,” but rejected the notion that political considerations impacted how officials communicated with the public after the devastation. It was only earlier this month that the Puerto Rico government had quietly admitted in a report to Congress that its estimate was closer to 1,427 deaths — still far higher than its previous official total of 64.

Trump has been widely criticized for his administration’s reaction to the disaster, but has repeatedly bragged that the administration has done a good job. A Harvard study released in June estimated the death toll could be as high as 5,000, but the White House insisted at the time that “the federal response was at a historic proportion.”

When the official death toll stood at only 16 last year, Trump told Puerto Ricans that they should feel “very proud” of how they weathered the storm. He also infamously tossed paper towels and toilet paper into a crowd, making a spectacle of the recovery effort.

Trump said Wednesday that Puerto Rico had a lot of difficulties before the hurricanes hit and “we’re straightening out the difficulties even now.”