WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Thursday falsely accused Democrats of inflating Puerto Rico's death toll from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, insisting the total is much smaller than various studies have found -- a contention that provoked widespread outrage even as the East Coast braced for a massive new storm.
The president's rejection of the U.S. island's official tally that nearly 3,000 people died after last year's devastating hurricanes, and his suggestion that the toll wasn't much greater than 18 deaths, was one of the most prominent examples to date of Trump's instincts to deny accepted reality when he perceives it as criticism and to counter with conspiracy theories.
His statements in back-to-back morning tweets came while millions of Americans were anxiously watching the path of Hurricane Florence as it headed toward the Carolinas. Trump for days has been focusing on federal preparations for that storm, recognizing that his administration's response will be a key test of competency ahead of the November elections.
The president already had come under bipartisan fire this week after he called the federal government's response last fall in Puerto Rico an "incredible unsung success."
His rhetoric has not only angered politicians in both parties, but it also stole attention from positive economic news and created another stumbling block for Trump's Republican allies who face tight races, forcing them to respond to questions about the president's statements. That danger was especially pronounced in Florida, where a large Puerto Rican population has grown significantly as migrants have fled the ravaged island.
In Puerto Rico, many residents went without power for nearly a year after Maria, the second and most destructive of two major storms, made landfall nearly a year ago, on Sept. 20. Reconstruction has lagged, leaving thousands of people living under blue tarps.
The government's official death toll rose from about 17 when Trump visited in October, to 64 and recently, after extensive research and public outcry, to 2,975 -- the tally fixed by researchers commissioned by the island's government.
Yet Trump tweeted, "3000 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. As time went by it did not go up by much ... "
Trump accused Democrats of reporting larger numbers "in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico."
"If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list," he added. "Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"