President Donald Trump on Thursday denied the massive death toll estimate in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria last year, claiming without evidence that Democrats invented the numbers "to make me look as bad as possible."
"3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths," Trump tweeted. "As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3,000."
Trump 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."
The president suggested Democrats were cooking the books, saying, "If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics."
Trump's tweets referred to an independent report, commissioned by the Puerto Rican government and conducted by George Washington University's Milken Institute of Public Health, that found an estimated 2,975 people died in Puerto Rico in the five months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last September.
The estimate, released along with the report last month, was far higher than the government's official death toll count of 64. The new number was adopted as the official death toll by the island's government. Trump, in his tweets, did not provide any evidence to support his claims of a conspiracy.
"People in Puerto Rico don't deserve to have their pain questioned," Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico's governor, said in Spanish during a Facebook live stream Thursday, responding to Trump's tweets. He said the island's government asked GWU to undertake the study that "could help us minimize the uncertainty in regards to the death toll."
"As a scientist myself,” said Rosselló, “I determined that the best decision was to use that number (from the GWU study) as the official death toll, and I trust that such process was conducted adequately."
According to the report, the number of excess deaths, which took place from September 2017 to February 2018, represent a 22 percent increase from what would have been expected during that time period had no hurricane hit the island.
An earlier study, released by Harvard University in May, had also estimated that 4,645 more people died from Sept. 20 to Dec. 31 last year than in that same period in 2016.
Researchers at GWU have said that their study is different in that it factored in the number of people who left the island right after the storm. According to their calculations, they estimated that Puerto Rico saw an 8 percent drop in population after the hurricane, which triggered one of the longest power blackouts in history and drove thousands of people to the mainland.
The study found the risk of dying over this period was 60 percent higher among people living in the poorest municipalities in Puerto Rico and 35 percent higher among elderly men. Researchers said that the elevated risk of death persisted beyond the five months that were studied for these two subgroups.
The recent findings are just part of the first phase of what GWU expects to be a two-part investigation, in which they hope to interview families of victims who died during Maria's aftermath, in an effort to identify how many of the 2,975 deaths can be attributed directly to the hurricane.
Immediately after the hurricane and throughout the last year, island residents have pushed back against the initial count of fatalities, describing how loved ones died following the massive power failure that not only impacted residential homes, but hospitals and nursing homes.
A state senator, José Dalmau Santiago, told NBC News about the deaths of several people he knew when the generators at a hospital in the town of Humacao failed.
Some administration officials, however, have in recent days sought to make a distinction between direct deaths from Hurricane Maria and indirect deaths.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's administrator, Brock Long, told MSNBC on Wednesday that "there is a big discrepancy between direct deaths of how people died from the wind or the water or buildings collapse, versus the long term secondary or indirect deaths that occurred over a six-month period."
"And a lot of that can be tied to a very weak infrastructure that we work around-the-clock in Puerto Rico to fix," Brock said.
Trump’s tweets immediately prompted blistering blowback from other Puerto Rican officials, as well as Democratic lawmakers. And some Republicans distanced themselves from the president's comments and said they accept the official death toll.
"This is what denial following neglect looks like: Mr Pres in the real world people died on your watch," San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz tweeted.
She added, "YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING!"
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., tweeted: "You're right, Mr. President. The Hurricane didn't kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did."
About 10 hours after Trump's tweets, a White House spokesman issued a statement, "As the President said, every death from Hurricane Maria is a horror. Before, during, and after the two massive hurricanes, the President directed the entire Administration to provide unprecedented support to Puerto Rico. President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan Mayor who sadly, have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing out a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations."
In Florida, where there is a large Puerto Rican population, the gubernatorial candidates from both major parties rejected Trump's remarks.
A spokesman for Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate, told Orlando-area TV station WFTV that he had "no reason to doubt the number of 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted that "these days even tragedy becomes political."
“3k more Americans died in #PuertoRico after Hurricane than during comparable periods before. Both Fed & local gov made mistakes,” he wrote. “We all need to stop the blame game & focus on recovery, helping those still hurting & fixing the mistakes."
Trump's posts came as Hurricane Florence, with fierce winds and torrential rains, approached the U.S. coastline along North and South Carolina.