Trump again harps on Hurricane Maria death toll as Florence kills in the Carolinas

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With the deadly remnants of Hurricane Florence still pounding the Carolinas, President Donald Trump took to Twitter again late Friday night to question the number of deaths in Puerto Rico attributed to last year’s Hurricane Maria.

Having already drawn widespread criticism from members of his own party earlier this week for a claim made without evidence that the death toll was ginned up by Democrats in order to slime him, Trump once again tried to cast doubt on the estimated 2,975 killed by Hurricane Maria in the U.S. territory. He suggested speciously that George Washington University — whose researchers analyzed mortality data in Puerto Rico in order to determine how many people died during the hurricane and its aftermath — created the numbers “like magic” through an unprecedented and unproven method.

“When Trump visited the island territory last October, OFFICIALS told him in a briefing 16 PEOPLE had died from Maria,” Trump tweeted, appearing to attribute the quote to the Washington Post. “This was long AFTER the hurricane took place. Over many months it went to 64 PEOPLE. Then, like magic, “3000 PEOPLE KILLED.”

He went on.

“They hired … GWU Research to tell them how many people had died in Puerto Rico (how would they not know this?). This method was never done with previous hurricanes because other jurisdictions know how many people were killed. FIFTY TIMES LAST ORIGINAL NUMBER – NO WAY!”

The official death toll from last year’s storm stood at 64 until late August, although doubts had been cast on that estimate. On Aug. 27, the Puerto Rican government put the number of dead at 2,975, a total based on a George Washington University study commissioned by the Puerto Rico government that includes deaths caused or not prevented because the island’s infrastructure was decimated. A separate study conducted by Harvard University researchers produced an estimate of more than 4,000, though there was a significant variation on the actual death total.

Trump’s tweets — which drew an offer from Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello to explain the methodology and a request for “respect” for the death — came as first responders were rescuing people from homes in flooded-out towns in the Carolinas. Hurricane Florence (by now a tropical storm) dumped more than a foot of rain in some places between Friday and Saturday mornings and is expected to continue moving slowly, dumping more rain over the area throughout the weekend.

As many as seven deaths have been attributed to the storm so far.

But Trump has been fixated on his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria the entire week, starting when he defended the federal response in Puerto Rico as an “unsung success” seen as Hurricane Florida approached the east coast. On Thursday, the president was criticized by members of his own party, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for claiming the Hurricane Maria death toll was a lie. And oft-critical Republicans like retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen slammed Trump’s claim as “shameless and disgusting.”

The president’s tweets are problematic for Republicans trying to refrain from criticizing the president while distancing themselves from his at-times controversial remarks. Former congressman and GOP gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis — an ardent Trump defender who campaigned with the president during the Republican primary — also said he disagreed with Trump Thursday.

DeSantis and Scott have taken pains to court the Puerto Rican vote, with Florida’s outgoing governor having visited the island seven times since Hurricane Maria made landfall. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans — who according to polls have a very low opinion of the president — can vote in state elections once they’ve established residency and registered.

According to Florida Politcs, DeSantis is scheduled Saturday to attend a Hispanic heritage event in Central Florida, where more than 1 million Puerto Ricans live.

McClatchy DC reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.