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Trump stance on Puerto Rico death toll draws criticism on Capitol Hill

By Nicholas Sakelaris and Danielle Haynes
Trump stance on Puerto Rico death toll draws criticism on Capitol Hill
The Puerto Rican flag is displayed at the entrance to an operating room at the 14th Combat Support Hospital in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on October 18. The 14th CSH provided medical care after Hurricane Maria. File Photo by Capt. Christopher Merian/Air Force Space Command

Sept. 13 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump said Thursday he doesn't believe 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico last year as a result of Hurricanes Maria and Irma -- a claim that drew swift criticism from members of both parties.

Hurricane Maria and Irma hit Puerto Rico a year ago and knocked out power in the U.S. territory for months. Some Puerto Ricans are still without power.

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The death toll in Puerto Rico has steadily climbed in the months after the storms passed -- and was put at nearly 3,000 last month by an analysis from George Washington University and the University of Puerto Rico.

In a pair of tweets Thursday, Trump accused Democrats of inflating the number to make him look bad. He said the toll was no greater than 18 when he visited the island last year and "did not go up by much."

RELATED Tropical Storm Isaac to hit Lesser Antilles with rain, wind

"Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers like 3,000," Trump wrote.

"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," a second tweet added. "If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico."

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A Harvard University study in May said at least 4,645 died. Puerto Rico upped its official estimate to 1,427 in a July draft report. The territory then raised the official death toll again to reflect that estimate.

RELATED Hurricane Maria killed 2,975 in Puerto Rico, new study says

Trump has previously said his administration's handling of the storms was "an incredible unsung success."

That prompted an angry response from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who tweeted, "Success? Federal response according to Trump in Puerto Rico a success? If he thinks the death of 3,000 people [is] a success God help us all."

Thursday, Cruz called Trump "delusional, paranoid and unhinged," and said he's "so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT."

RELATED Puerto Rico raises death toll from Hurricane Maria to 1,427

Members of both parties on Capitol Hill disagreed with the president's statements.

"You couldn't get to people for a long time on the island because roads were washed out, power was gone and the casualties mounted for a long time," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters. "So I have no reason to dispute those numbers. Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island."

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"3k more Americans died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane than during comparable periods before. Both Fed & local gov made mistakes," Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted. "We all need to stop the blame game & focus on recovery, helping those still hurting & fixing the mistakes."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said Trump is dead wrong.

"Even though the president dropped the ball he is now doing a victory dance in the end zone. Or should we call it the dead zone?" he tweeted.

"More people died in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico than died in Hurricane Katrina, and than died in the attacks of 9-11. That is not fake news, Mr. President."

"Trump prefers his 'alternative facts' to the tragedy faced by families of the lost," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. "Worse still, the GOP is determined to shield his insulting behavior from accountability. It's time for Republicans in Congress to get back to performing our crucial oversight function."

Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley issued a statement reiterating that the president believes that every death from Hurricane Maria "is a horror."

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"Before, during and after the two massive hurricanes, the president directed the entire administration to provide unprecedented support to Puerto Rico," Gidley said. "President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan mayor who sadly, have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations."

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