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WHITE HOUSE —U.S. President Donald Trump is facing fresh, harsh criticism for disputing the official death toll in Puerto Rico from last year’s hurricanes and alleging, without evidence, that opposition Democratic Party members inflated the numbers to make him look bad.
Trump said on Twitter Thursday morning, “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” referring to hurricanes Maria and Irma.
An independent study concluded the death toll from Hurricane Maria was nearly 3,000.
The reaction to Trump's tweets on the matter has been fast and fierce.
“With 3,000 people dead, for the president to say that Puerto Rico was a success, a triumph of his presidency, is simply delusional,” Congressman Luis Gutierrez said on the floor of the House of Representatives Thursday morning. “And now, he denies that they are even dead.”
Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican heritage and represents the state of Illinois, was involved in the island’s recovery effort. He also accused Trump of “making a tremendous and deadly mistake in caring for the American people.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican from a state where many of those who fled the island have relocated, said he disagreed with the president.
"An independent study said thousands were lost," Scott said on Twitter, adding that he has been to the island seven times and had seen the devastation firsthand.
Congressman Steny Hoyer, who as the Democratic whip holds the opposition party’s second highest position in the chamber, called the president’s comment “beyond comprehension and deeply offensive to the thousands of American families who lost loved ones.”
Paul Ryan, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (the top representative of the president’s party in the chamber), had a conditional defense of Trump's comments when questioned by a reporter.
“There is no reason to dispute these numbers,” Ryan replied, adding, however, “it was no one’s fault” that so many had died from a devastating storm hitting an isolated island.
Power was out for several months for much of the island, and damage from the storm still hampers the recovery of the Caribbean territory that is located about 1,600 kilometers southeast of the state of Florida and is home to 3.3 million people, who are U.S. citizens. About a quarter of a million residents were displaced.
A report by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, issued on Aug. 29, said vast numbers of Puerto Ricans died as a direct result of Hurricane Maria last September, far beyond the initial estimate of 64 deaths.
The report said many of the deaths occurred weeks later because of devastating damage to the Caribbean island's electrical grid that curbed treatment for those with life-threatening injuries or medical conditions.
The death toll issue is making fresh headlines, as Hurricane Florence targets the southeastern U.S. coastal state. As the new storm approached, Trump, for days, revisited the U.S. government's performance in handling the aftermath of Maria's stunning blow to Puerto Rico and other hurricanes that hit the U.S. mainland last year.
Trump went to Puerto Rico after Maria hit, saying, “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.”
The president 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. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
Some prominent Republicans are hesitating to criticize the president about the tweets. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is the finance committee chairman, laughed when a reporter read excerpts to him on Thursday, responding: “I can’t really comment because I don’t know anything about it.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, told reporters: “The death toll in Puerto Rico is abominable and abhorrent, and it’s a lesson in our need to do better for our fellow Americans, adding that “Puerto Rico is still a humanitarian crisis.”
The president views it differently.
“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan),” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told CNN that the president's words added "insult to injury," saying he had no idea what is going on there. She said Trump has "no empathy" for anything that doesn't make him look good.
Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rossello said, "Now is not the time to pass judgment. It is time to channel every effort to improve the lives of over 3 million Americans in Puerto Rico."
Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report. Michael Bowman and Katherine Gypson contributed from Capitol Hill.
Steve Herman is VOA's White House Bureau Chief.