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Trump rebuked after questioning number of deaths attributed to Hurricane Maria

FILE - President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 3, 2017. Trump on Sept. 13, 2018, falsely accused Democrats via Twitter of inflating the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, rejecting a government assessment that the storm had claimed nearly 3,000 lives. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/2018)

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump drew widespread rebukes Thursday - including from several fellow Republicans - after falsely claiming that the number of deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria had been inflated by Democrats to "make me look as bad as possible."

In morning tweets, Trump took issue with the findings of a sweeping report released last month by George Washington University that estimated there were 2,975 "excess deaths" in the six months after the storm made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017.

Trump said on Twitter that "they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths" when he visited the island about two weeks after the storm.

"As time went by it did not go up by much," Trump wrote. "Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000. 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!"

Trump's tweets - which came as the highly dangerous Hurricane Florence churned toward the Carolinas - misrepresented the nature of the study and were harshly criticized by Democrats in Congress, as well as by some Republicans.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., told reporters that she thinks the figure of nearly 3,000 is sound.

"What kind of mind twists that statistic into, 'Oh, fake news is trying to hurt my image'?" she said. "How can you be so self-centered and try to distort the truth so much? It's mind-boggling."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, whose U.S. Senate bid has been endorsed by Trump, said in a tweet that he disagreed with the president, relaying that "an independent study said thousands were lost" and that he had been to Puerto Rico seven times and "saw the devastation firsthand."

In a statement, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, called on Trump to "resign at once."

"The fact that the President will not take responsibility for his Administration's failures and will not even recognize that thousands have perished shows us, once again, that he is not fit to serve as our President," Thompson said in a statement.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who until recently had gone out of his way to avoid conflicts with Trump, also expressed frustration.

"The victims and the people of Puerto Rico should not have their pain questioned," he said during an interview on MSNBC. "These are certainly statements that are wrong."

Rosselló added that Puerto Rico would be treated differently if it were a state rather than a U.S. territory.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who publicly pleaded with Trump for a stronger response to the storm, also blasted the president.

"President Trump's statement, questioning the deaths in Puerto Rico, shows a lack of respect for our reality and our pain," she said in a statement. "He simply is unable to grasp the human suffering that his neglect and lack of sensibility have caused us. 3000 people died on his watch and his inability to grasp that makes him dangerous."

During a news conference on Capitol Hill later Thursday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., avoided directly criticizing Trump but said he had no reason to dispute the study's findings.

"This was a function of a devastating storm hitting an isolated island, and that is really no one's fault," Ryan said. "The casualties mounted for a long time, and I have no reason to dispute those numbers."

Carlos Santos-Burgoa, the principal investigator of the GWU study and a professor in the School of Global Health, said Friday afternoon that he and his colleagues were unbiased in their work and received no political pressure from Democrats or anyone else to come up with a high estimate of storm-related deaths.

"We stand by the science underlying our study. It is rigorous. It's state-of-the-art. We collected the data from the official sources. Everything can be validated," Santos-Burgoa told The Washington Post. "We didn't receive any pressure from anybody to go this way or that way. We wouldn't do it. We are professionals of public health."

In his tweets, Trump thoroughly mischaracterized how the GWU researchers came up with the figure of 2,975 excess deaths. They did not, contrary to the president's claim, attribute any specific individual's death to Hurricane Maria. Given the methodology, there was not an opportunity to misclassify someone who died of old age, as Trump suggested.

Rather, the GWU study looked at the number of deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 and compared that total with what would have been expected based on historical patterns. They factored in many variables, including the departure of hundreds of thousands of island residents in the aftermath of Maria.

A clear pattern emerged from the analysis: The mortality rate spiked in the months after the storm, particularly in the poorest areas of Puerto Rico, and among elderly males.

The unusually high death rate never completely reached the normal level even after six months, the researchers found - a sign of Puerto Rico's continued struggle to deal with the effects of the hurricane.

Had the GWU researchers done what Trump claimed they did - attributing any death to Maria - the six-month death toll from the hurricane would have been 16,608.

The study's methodology was designed to overcome the lack of information contained in the death certificates of people who died in Puerto Rico during those six months. This approach also captured the human health consequences of the island's devastation, which included power outages lasting for months, disease outbreaks, water insecurity and a lack of adequate health care.

The researchers have acknowledged the limitation of this kind of statistical study. They did not knock on doors or learn the individual stories of who died, and when, and why. That kind of in-depth investigation would be worthy, the GWU researchers said.

The government of Puerto Rico has accepted the 2,975 figure as the official death toll from Maria. For much of the past year, officials had acknowledged only 64 deaths from the storm.

Santos-Burgoa said he would like to do a follow-up study that focuses on "cause-specific" mortality. He said the researchers are actively seeking funding for such work.

"We need a phase where we go more granular, more in detail, and we have to go and reconstruct what actually happened," he said. Such research could help limit the death tolls from future disasters, he said.

The president's tweets come on the heels of a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll in which Puerto Ricans gave low marks to Trump, along with the federal and local governments, for last year's response to Maria. Eighty percent said Trump had done either a poor or only a fair job responding.

Survey findings support the widespread nature of deaths related to the storm, with about 1 in 5 Puerto Rico residents saying a close friend or family member died of injuries caused by the storm or because they were unable to get sufficient water, food or medical care in the months afterward.

Earlier this week, Trump hailed his administration's response to Maria as "an incredible, unsung success."

It was "one of the best jobs that's ever been done with respect to what this is all about," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office as he was receiving a briefing on Hurricane Florence.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has acknowledged that it was ill-prepared for the storm.

Asked why Trump seems unable to acknowledge shortcomings, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that he thinks "the president sees every attack on him as sort of undercutting his legitimacy."

"I don't think it's bad to say we could've done better in Puerto Rico," said Graham, a frequent Trump ally. "I don't think you want to declare a success when people die. The point is: Did you do everything you could do within reason? I don't know the answer to that question. There's always mistakes in every hurricane."

Aside from the claims made in Trump's latest tweets, many lawmakers said Thursday that they were troubled by the continuing debate over the response to Maria at a time when officials should be focused on Florence.

"We should all be focused on what's about to happen in the Carolinas and not be politicizing this issue of hurricane and hurricane relief," said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.). "It's always difficult to respond to a natural disaster, and certainly on an island like Puerto Rico, that was evident. . . . A lot of lessons to be learned."

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., told reporters he found the back-and-forth over Maria "kind of odd" given the seriousness of Florence.

"We should be talking about what's happening in North Carolina and the folks that are preparing for a terrible storm," he said.

Trump's tweets about Maria were part of a spate of others from the president on Thursday morning. Some warned of the dangers of Florence, while others attacked the FBI and touted the strength of the economy under his watch.

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This article was written by Joel Achenbach and John Wagner, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Mike Debonis and Sueng Min Kim contributed to this report.

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