Speaking to Fox News host Lou Dobbs, veteran Republican political strategist Ed Rollins concurred with Dobbs and President Donald Trump that a recent independent report on hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico reached 2,975 following the 2017 storms. The president asserted in a series of tweets on Thursday that the statistics in the report are fudged. Trump tweeted on Thursday that 3,000 Puerto Ricans "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," Trump tweeted while the Carolinas were battening down the hatches before Hurricane Florence. He later tweeted: ".....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 the Fox News interview, Dobbs told Rollins, "Let's turn to another matter of, I think, considerable ignorance, and that is a number of institutions, including academic institutions, whether George Washington University or the Harvard School of Public Policy, coming up with these ridiculous projections of a death count, body count, from Hurricane María." Dobbs said, "This is just astonishing. And for two candidates, Rick Scott running for the Senate against Bill Nelson, Ron DeSantis running for the governorship, to sit there and say they just decide against the reality, and against the president, is to me just beyond the pale."
"Well, they had better understand the president's the only — DeSantis would not be on the ticket if it wasn't for the president's endorsement, obviously Scott was the governor," said Rollins. "The reality is that the Democrats are playing to Puerto Ricans who have moved to this country, moved to Florida, politics, and they're not for us anyways. So at the end of the day here, the president is accurate." Rollins added, "I do statistics all the time."
Rollins pointed out that Puerto Rico was already in a parlous state before the hurricane. He noted that the commonwealth is bankrupt, and that the federal government has essentially rebuild the island territory, including its electrical grid.
The independent report noted that many of the deaths claimed were among elderly and sick people who died of preventable causes in the aftermath the 2017 hurricane because they had no access to clean water, electricity, or health care. Democrats and other critics of the Trump administration are faulting the federal government for those deaths, pointing out that it withdrew a U.S. Navy hospital ship and allowing the Federal Emergency Management Administration to allow 20,000 pallets of water bottles to sit unused at a federally-controlled airstrip in Puerto Rico.
Republicans did not appear to defend the president when media and Democrats reacted to Trump’s tweets. “Ron DeSantis is committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community, especially after such a tragic loss of life. He doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” said Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis. When asked about Trump’s tweets, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he had no reason to dispute the numbers, but he did not directly comment on the president’s remarks. "Casualties don't make a person look bad so I have no reason to dispute these numbers," he told reporters on Thursday. Ryan continued: "I'll just say what I just said, which is there is no reason to dispute these numbers. This is a devastating storm that hit an isolated island. And that's really no one's fault. It's just what happened."
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham defended Trump and said that president had not used the "right words" to describe the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, and later added he questioned the number. "I don't think those are the right words when you talk about loss of life," he said, adding he doesn't "buy the idea that the President is indifferent to our friends in Puerto Rico."
"(The death toll) jumped like thousands. I don't know what they are associating with the hurricane -- what kind of methodology did you use?" Graham said. "The goal is to find out what happened. What could local people do better. What could the federal government do better. How many people actually died from this hurricane? I think that's a good thing for Congress to look at."
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that both the federal and local governments made mistakes in Puerto Rico. He said that critics should cease the “blame game” and instead focus on recovery.
Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.