WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s false claim Thursday about Hurricane Maria’s death toll won rare public rebukes from Republicans, at least the ones running for the top elected offices in Florida, where some 100,000 Puerto Ricans fled after the devastating 2017 storm.
Ron DeSantis ― who during the primary campaign dressed his infant son in a “Make America Great Again” onesie for a TV commercial to show his adoration of Trump ― released a statement disagreeing with Trump’s assertion that 3,000 people did not die because of the storm and that the number was the work of Democrats.
“He [DeSantis] doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” said a statement from campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson. “Ron is focused on continuing to help our Puerto Rican neighbors recover and create opportunities for those who have moved to Florida [to] succeed.”
Gov. Rick Scott, who in 2016 led a super PAC supporting Trump but this year has been edging away from him as he runs for the Senate, put out an even more direct repudiation.
“I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed,” Scott wrote on Twitter, referring to Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart-wrenching. I’ll continue to help PR.”
Whether those statements will be enough in an election that is shaping up to be all about the president is unknown. In addition to offending the million or so Floridians who have moved there from Puerto Rico in recent decades, Trump’s comments are sure to anger Latinos generally as well as dismay many independent voters who like the current performance of the economy but who dislike Trump’s temperament, lack of attention span and serial dishonesty.
“I don’t see any scenario where those tweets are helpful to anyone on the Republican ticket,” said David Johnson, a longtime GOP consultant and former executive director of the state Republican Party.
At 8:37 a.m., not long after CNN aired a segment mentioning the 2,975 death toll, Trump wrote in a statement on Twitter: “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. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000....”
Twelve minutes later, 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. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
In fact, the 2,975 estimate comes from an exhaustive George Washington University analysis of fatalities on the island that included people who died for lack of medical care, for example, because so much of Puerto Rico remained without electricity for many months. Maria hit on Sept. 20, walloping the island just 14 days after Hurricane Irma had struck a glancing blow. Many on Puerto Rico criticized the analysis as too conservative in its approach, and believe the actual death toll was even higher.
Adam Goodman, a Republican consultant who supported Trump before the election and early in his presidency but has now become a critic, said the comments are certain to anger voters already inclined to vote Democratic in November. “The best way to energize a base is to offend them,” he said, adding that Republican candidates need to actively distance themselves from Trump. “All those who enable it through silence are as responsible as the one with the megaphone.”
It is unclear whether Trump’s claims were actual lies or whether he genuinely believed his falsehoods. The White House would not provide HuffPost any information regarding where Trump may have picked up those false ideas or why he chose to broadcast them to his tens of millions of Twitter followers.
For the past year, Trump has bragged about his administration’s response to Maria and how few people died compared to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed more than 1,800 in and around New Orleans.
Scott is finishing his second term as governor and is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. He has made outreach to Puerto Rican voters, who have historically voted for Democrats in Florida, a key part of his campaign. He has visited the U.S. island territory seven times since Maria hit last autumn.
DeSantis, who resigned from Congress this week after nearly three terms representing the wealthy Jacksonville suburbs, has also sought to attract the support of Puerto Rican migrants. He visited the island in August.
Yet while Scott has been putting some distance between himself and Trump of late – he avoided a Tampa rally Trump staged in late July – DeSantis may not have that luxury. His support was in the single digits across the state when he entered the governor’s race against establishment GOP favorite Adam Putnam in January. His entire campaign was centered around his endorsement by Trump, which was based on the numerous Trump-boosting appearances DeSantis has made on Fox News in recent years.
Months ago, when he still trailed Putnam in the polls by double digits, his campaign had accepted the necessity of sticking with Trump in the general election should he win the nomination, for better or worse, for fear of losing Trump’s hardcore base.
Scott’s and DeSantis’ Democratic opponents, meanwhile, were quick to condemn Trump’s statement.
“The president’s comments on the nearly 3,000 American lives lost in Puerto Rico are shameful. We deserve and expect more from someone who holds the highest office in our country,” Nelson wrote on Twitter – and shortly thereafter released the identical statement in Spanish.
Democratic nominee for governor Andrew Gillum also responded to Trump on Twitter: “No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from @realDonaldTrump before, during, and after the hurricane.”