Trump doubles down on his lie that Puerto Rico death toll was inflated


President Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd as he hands out supplies  Puerto Rico on Tuesday. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd as he hands out supplies Puerto Rico on Tuesday. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Late Friday night, President Trump returned to a recent target of his: the official death toll Hurricane Maria inflicted on Puerto Rico.

As Hurricane Florence unleashed historic rainfall and flooding upon the Carolinas, Trump seemingly could not let criticism of how he handled last year’s deadly hurricane go.

Trump first quoted the Washington Post’s report of his past criticism of the death toll: “When Trump visited the island territory last October, officials told him in a briefing that 16 people had died from Maria.” He did not quote the sentence the followed: “But Puerto Rican officials doubled the death toll to 34 later that day.”

Trump then argued that the additional deaths happened “long AFTER the hurricane took place.”

Then he described the rising death toll — to 64 and then to 3,000 — rising “like magic.” He concluded, “FIFTY TIMES LAST ORIGINAL NUMBER – NO WAY!” and criticized George Washington University researchers for their analysis of the death toll.

Counting deaths caused by a disaster like a hurricane is incredibly difficult. Hurricane Katrina caused well over a thousand deaths in 2005, but to this day there is no single accurate death toll number.


But the report Trump attacked, independently conducted by George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health researchers, and commissioned by the governor of Puerto Rico, estimated 2,975 deaths, which is closer to earlier independent estimates of the storm’s death toll than the initial official death toll. They found that the death rate in the six months following the storm increased dramatically compared to historical patterns.

Not every hurricane casualty happens as a result of the physical storm’s wind and water. Some people die after systems that the storm destroys fail to provide the medical, food, power, or safety functions they had relied upon prior to the storm. The whole point of disaster response is to restore safety and then previous functionality of those systems to allow residents to rebuild.

Instead of sympathy from the president for the heartache and loss endured by victims’ families, Trump leveled caustic attacks.

Trump also quote-tweeted Fox’s Geraldo Rivera, who said “They say all these people died in the storm in Puerto Rico, yet 70% of the power was out before the storm.”

In fact, while the island’s power grid has historically been unreliable, service had been restored to 96 percent of customers before Hurricane Maria hit, even though Hurricane Irma, had buzzed the island two weeks before.


Rivera accused those talking about the death toll of pushing a “political agenda couched in the nice language of journalism.”

Trump also quote tweeted right-wing talking heads Ed Rollins and Lou Dobbs, who lauded Trump for “rebuilding” and cleaning up Puerto Rico, and also castigated Puerto Rico’s government for corruption.

Earlier this week, Trump baldly said, “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico.” He accused the researchers of adding people who died of “old age” to the list.

“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,” Trump added, politicizing a national disaster that killed thousands of Americans.


The week’s news had previously been engulfed by scandals surrounding the sexual assault accusations against Trump’s Supreme Court pick, the revelations in Bob Woodward’s book, and the Paul Manafort cooperation deal. This is not the first time the president has distracted the country through a promotion of an odd conspiracy theory.

Last month Trump pushed a white nationalist conspiracy theory about the “large scale killing” of white farmers in South Africa. He’s suggested refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war “could be a great Trojan horse” for ISIS. Despite apologizing for his vulgar comments on the “Access Hollywood tape” after it was released during the campaign, as president, Trump has reportedly suggested that “we don’t think that was my voice.” He accused President Obama of wiretapping his phones in Trump Tower.