WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday rejected the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from last year's Hurricane Maria, arguing without evidence that the number was wrong and calling it a plot by Democrats to make him "look as bad as possible."
As Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas, the president picked a fresh fight over the administration's response to the Category 4 storm that smashed into the U.S. territory last September. Trump visited the island in early October to assess the situation amid widespread criticism over the recovery efforts.
"When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000," Trump tweeted.
He added: "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."
Puerto Rico's governor last month raised Maria's official death toll from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study found that the number of people who succumbed in the sweltering aftermath had been severely undercounted.
Previous reports from the Puerto Rican government said the number was closer to 1,400.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a Democrat who has sparred with Trump, quickly fired back, tweeting: "Simply put: delusional, paranoid, and unhinged from any sense of reality. Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT."
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, whose parents were Puerto Rican immigrants, spoke on the House floor in front of a printout of the Puerto Rican flag, saying Trump is "delusional" and incapable or "empathy or basic human decency."
"I pray that his response to the current disaster unfolding along the East Coast will be better and more empathetic," he said. "He has a golf club in North Carolina and a winery in Virginia, so maybe the American people in those states will get more of the president's help than my fellow Puerto Ricans did."
Trump began to focus on Hurricane Florence earlier this week, calling for an Oval Office briefing with the FEMA director to warn about the threat. But as the hurricane began to dominate news coverage, the administration's response to Hurricane Maria returned as a major storyline and began to infuriate Trump, according to two Republican advisers close to the White House who weren't authorized to speak publicly.
When a reporter asked Trump about Maria in the Oval Office, he swiftly unleashed fact-challenged defense of his response to the hurricane. That led the cable news coverage that evening, further angering the president, according to one of the people.
Trump told confidants that the media was underplaying the challenging circumstances in Puerto Rico and trying to exploit the storm to attack him. He told one adviser that he felt that he media "would stop at nothing" to undermine him and blamed local authorities for their inept response.
The estimate of nearly 3,000 dead in the six months after Maria devastated Puerto Rico and knocked out the entire electrical grid was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. The study said the original estimates were so low because doctors on the island had not been trained to properly classify deaths after a natural disaster.
The elderly and impoverished were hardest hit by the storm. Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover. Blackouts remain common. Nearly 60,000 homes are covered by only makeshift roofs not capable of withstanding a Category 1 hurricane. Also, 13 percent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service.
Trump's new fury threatened to distract from massive efforts to respond to Hurricane Florence. Throughout the week, the president has repeatedly defended his administration's efforts in Puerto Rico, calling it it an "incredible, unsung success" and renewed his verbal spat with Cruz, the San Juan mayor.
Hurricane Maria hit last year as the Trump administration was feeling positive about the handling of massive hurricanes in Florida and Texas last summer. Trump believed those recovery efforts were a success story he could use to turn the tide of negative press stories after a troubled August, said one official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Then came Maria and devastation in Puerto Rico, where a slow federal response was complicated by logistical concerns and preexisting economic and infrastructure deficiencies on the island territory.
But Trump, that official said, was unwilling to admit even internally that more needed to be done on the island.
Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, seized on Trump's use of the word "successful" and said in a statement at the time: "No relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called 'successful' because Puerto Ricans lack certain inalienable rights enjoyed by our fellow Americans in the states."
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Its inhabitants are U.S. citizens, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.
Rossello said Maria was "the worst natural disaster in our modern history" and that work remained before the island could move on to other stages of recovery. He also said he was waiting for Trump to respond to a petition to help Puerto Rico complete work on emergency housing restoration programs and debris removal.
Trump, who has struggled to express public empathy at times of national crises, sparked outrage during his post-Maria visit when he feuded with San Juan mayor and passed out paper towels to victims like he was shooting baskets.
After that visit, Trump said Puerto Ricans were fortunate that Maria was not a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast. All told, about 1,800 people died in that 2005 storm.