During a news briefing on Tuesday, a reporter asked a question White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t want to spend much time answering.
“Does Trump still think his response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico deserves a 10 out of 10 score now that estimates say almost 5,000 people died there?”
Sanders replied briefly before turning to the next question.
“The federal response, once again, was at a historic proportion,” she said. “We’re continuing to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do the best we can to provide federal assistance, particularly working with the governor there in Puerto Rico and we’ll continue to do so.”
REPORTER: "Does Trump still think his response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico deserves a 10 out of 10 now that estimates say almost 5,000 people died there?"
SANDERS: "The federal response was at a historic proportion. We're continuing to work with the people of Puerto Rico." pic.twitter.com/L5gsBrrPwE
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) June 5, 2018
The reporter attempted to follow up, asking, “any concern with the massive death toll?” But Sanders called on another reporter.
The official government death toll still sits at 64, which is “a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria” according to researchers who published a study last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
According to the Harvard University researchers’ data, at least 4,645 people, and as many as 5,740 people, died as a result of the deadly hurricane last year.
Prominent Democrats have called for a hearing to address the huge loss of life and insufficient federal response effort. Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), and Darren Soto (D-FL), joined Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) in a letter which said, “it is our responsibility to be honest about the shortcomings of the Trump Administration’s response to this disaster, provide answers to the Puerto Rican people, and take immediate steps to correct any outstanding inadequacies.”
Last week, Huckabee Sanders was asked about the Harvard study at a press conference, and she read a prepared statement which said “the president takes the situation in Puerto Rico extremely seriously and the administration has been monitoring that from the beginning.” She said that the administration had been supportive of efforts to achieve transparency, and noted the historic nature of the two category four hurricanes hitting the island.
President Trump said last year that the death toll, then estimated to be 16, should make Puerto Ricans “proud” when compared to the victims of other natural disasters in American history. He also politicized the response effort, attacking San Juan Mayor Carmen after she spoke out about the federal response, and accusing victims of lazily “wanting things to be done for them.”
During his visit following the storm, Trump threw paper towels and toilet paper at an assembled crowd as if he were throwing t-shirts at a sports game.
And earlier this month, Trump praised the botched federal relief efforts, telling an audience that after “last season” during his visits to disaster areas in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, he noticed something important. “I’ve said this to a lot of people, I don’t think any brand has gained more momentum or gained any more of anything than the brand of the United States Coast Guard,” he concluded, without talking about the thousands of additional deaths from the Harvard report that had been in the news.