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Trump whips up new storm over Puerto Rico,denies death toll

The Associated Press WASHINGTON (AP) — As Hurricane Florence bore down on the United States on Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump angrily churned up the devastating storm of a year earlier, disputing the official death count from Hurricane Maria and falsely accusing Democrats of inflating the Puerto Rican toll to make him “look as bad as possible.”

Public health experts have estimated that nearly 3,000 perished because of the effects of Maria. But Trump, whose efforts to help the island territory recover have been persistently criticized, was having none of that. He said just six to 18 people had been reported dead when he visited two weeks after the storm and suggested that many had been added later “if a person died for any reason, like old age.”

Trump’s jarring comments, coming as the East Coast braced for a massive storm, offered fresh evidence of his resistance to criticism and his insistence on viewing large and small events through the prism of his own success or failure.

Offering up a fresh conspiracy theory, he said of the Puerto Rico count, “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.”

Even some Republicans suggested the president had gone too far.

“Casualties don’t make a person look bad,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, breaking with the president. “So I have no reason to dispute those numbers.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who talks to Trump often, said, “I don’t think it’s bad to say we could have done better in Puerto Rico.” He also said he thought Trump “sees every attack on him as sort of undercutting his legitimacy.”

Especially upset were GOP politicians in Florida, a state with a substantial Puerto Rican population.

Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for the U.S. Senate, tweeted: “I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. The loss of any life is tragic.” A spokesman for former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who won the Florida GOP primary for governor with Trump’s support, said he did not agree with Trump’s tweets.

The White House defended the president.

“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,” said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley. “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.”

Gidley cited studies that attributed fewer than 3,000 deaths on the island to Maria.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has struggled to publicly express empathy at times of national crises, sparking outrage during his post-Maria visit when he feuded with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and tossed out paper towels to victims like he was shooting baskets.

In recent days, Trump publicly lauded his own administration’s response to Maria — and privately groused over storm-related news coverage that he saw as overly focused on Puerto Rico, according to two Republican advisers close to the White House who weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

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. Trump dismissed the findings Thursday, tweeting, “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list.”

Different categories for deaths

In fact, there are two categories of disaster deaths. “Direct” deaths include such fatalities as drownings in a storm surge or being crushed in a wind-toppled building. “Indirect” deaths are harder to count because they can include such things as heart attacks, electrocutions from downed power lines and failure to receive dialysis because the power is out — and those kinds of fatalities can happen after a storm has ended but while an area is struggling to restore electricity, clean water and other health and safety services.

State and local officials are responsible for establishing death tolls, not the federal government. After the total was revised Aug. 28, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement in which she did not actively dispute the revised figure.

Trump’s fresh anger drew swift rebukes from elected officials and residents of the island, where blackouts remain common, 60,000 homes still have makeshift roofs and 13 percent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service. A U.S. territory since 1898, Puerto Rico’s inhabitants are citizens, though they cannot vote in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.

Cruz, the Democratic San Juan mayor who has sparred with the president, tweeted, “Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT.”

Trump maintained as recently as Tuesday that his response to the storm was an “incredible unsung success.”

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