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What is Really The DeathToll?

Trump in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
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By: Peter Baker – nytimes.com – September 13, 2018

The presidential playbook during times of disaster is pretty well established by now: Consult with emergency officials (and be seen doing so). Express concern for those affected (on camera). Assure the public that the government is ready for whatever comes (whether it is or not).

But once again, President Trump has rewritten the playbook as Hurricane Florence blows through the Carolinas. While delivering forceful messages of warning and reassurance, Mr. Trump has also been busy awarding himself good grades for past hurricanes and even accusing opponents of inventing a death toll “to make me look as bad as possible.”

At a time when even Mr. Trump acknowledged that the focus should be on millions of Americans in the path of the storm, the always-about-me president could not restrain himself for long. Angry at criticism of his response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, he denied on Thursday that nearly 3,000 people had died, falsely calling it a made-up number by Democrats out to get him.

His defiant rejection of the widely accepted count infuriated the island’s leadership and even some Republican leaders in Congress. But it was hardly the first time Mr. Trump has dismissed consensus facts that do not fit his narrative. Mr. Trump’s version of his presidency is one of unmatched, best-in-history victory after victory, never mind what history may say. What the people of Puerto Rico considered a calamity, he saw as an “incredible unsung success.”

“He pushes back against the data on deaths, not because he’s upset by the loss of nearly 3,000 lives but because he’s terrified of responsibility, failure and blame,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “Were someone else president, Trump would be the first to tweet an attack on an administration that struggled the way his did after Maria. Now he imagines that others will attack him, so he’s acting first.”

Ever since the storm, Mr. Trump has pushed back against criticism that his administration was slow to respond to Puerto Rico, where the distribution of supplies, gas and food lagged and power outages lasted for months, particularly compared with a swift and efficient response to an earlier hurricane that hit Texas. It was six days after Hurricane Maria hit the island before Mr. Trump pledged to go there, even as he traveled to Texas four days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. Full power was restored to homes only in August, nearly a year after the storm.

Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican ally of Mr. Trump’s who was praised for his own leadership during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, said that Puerto Rico was an “extraordinary challenge” in part because the island’s infrastructure was in poor shape to begin with and that Mr. Trump resented being blamed for factors beyond his control.

“I think he’s frustrated by that,” Mr. Christie said in an interview. “When the president gets frustrated about something, he tweets. But I think the important thing to focus on both for him and for everybody else is: Is he acting in a way that’s responsible in getting people out of harm’s way and getting prepared for the storm” now thrashing the East Coast? He said Mr. Trump had done a good job in urging residents to flee Florence.

Few presidents go out of their way to admit mistakes or take responsibility when things go wrong, but Mr. Trump arrived in the White House with a never-apologize rule and a penchant for bending facts to suit his needs. When good economic numbers were released under President Barack Obama, he said they could not be trusted. Now that the same agencies release good economic numbers on his watch, he cites them as proof of his success.

In a revealing moment in June, he said that if it turned out he was wrong about North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, he probably would not acknowledge it but would instead would come up with a way to deflect blame. “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that,” he said, “but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

His defiance on the death toll also served as a reminder that there are few moments when the famously combative president does not relish a political fight. Aside from trying to rewrite the history of Puerto Rico’s hurricane, he has over the past few days taken time out to publicly lash out again at the Russia investigation, denounce Bob Woodward’s new book, assail former Secretary of State John Kerry and taunt the Wall Street tycoon Jamie Dimon about running in 2020.

Veterans of natural disasters expressed chagrin that the president was absorbed by political fights when the country needs nonpartisan leadership.

“In any emergency that you have or any moment of crisis, people need to know that their leaders are focused on what’s the most important thing, which is keeping them safe,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a Democrat and close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s. “Picking these political fights distracts the president’s attention from what really matters.”

Even some in Mr. Trump’s orbit regretted that he veered off topic. Thomas P. Bossert, who was the president’s homeland security adviser during Hurricane Maria last year, conceded in an interview this week that Mr. Trump’s self-congratulation should have been tempered with compassion.

“The missing part was empathy,” said Mr. Bossert, who was forced out of the administration earlier this year. “I wish he’d paused and expressed that instead of just focusing on the response success.”

After taping a message to residents in states that could be hit by Hurricane Florence and participating in a televised briefing from emergency officials earlier this week, Mr. Trump remained out of sight on Thursday. He announced on Twitter that he had received an update from emergency officials without inviting cameras as he did earlier in the week, although the White House released two pictures.

His claim on the death toll came in a pair of morning tweets. “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” he said. Mr. Trump said the toll in Puerto Rico was only six to 18 dead after his visit there following the storm and that “as time went by it did not go up by much.” Democrats, he said, had padded the death toll by including, for example, a person who died of old age.

Mr. Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico last year was remembered partly for images of him tossing rolls of paper towels to bereft residents. The death toll has changed since then. Fatalities were officially recorded as 64 for nearly a year, despite convincing evidence that the figure was too low because death certificates had failed to take into account the long-range impact of the storm.

In August, a review by researchers from George Washington University at the request of the Puerto Rican government compared death rates during the storm and its aftermath to normal rates and concluded that 2,975 more people died than would have otherwise. While this was a scientific extrapolation rather than a list of specific names with specific causes, the Puerto Rican government accepted the estimate, as did lawmakers from both parties.

Puerto Rico’s leadership took issue with Mr. Trump’s dismissal of that number, as did several leading Florida Republicans, including Gov. Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio.

“We strongly denounce anyone who would use this disaster or question our suffering for political purposes,” Gov. Ricardo A. Roselló of Puerto Rico said. “I ask the president to recognize the magnitude of Hurricane Maria and continue working with my government to ensure a full recovery of the American citizens of Puerto Rico.”

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a retiring Miami Republican, said that no one should distort the truth of what happened in Puerto Rico. “It might be a new low,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said of the president’s false claim, adding that only a “warped mind that would turn this statistic into fake news” about himself.

Mr. Bossert said that attributing thousands of deaths in Puerto Rico purely to the storm was a tricky business, a view privately held by many still serving in the Trump administration.

“The people that died — thousands of people — it’s terrible, but it’s always difficult to talk about the causality of that death,” Mr. Bossert said. He argued that the link between some of the fatalities reported and the storm might have been “correlative, and not necessarily causal,” such as the case of a person with a heart condition who died months later because of lack of sufficient access to clean water, electricity or medical care.

In some parts of Florida where highly contested midterm elections are just weeks away, the politics of Maria were hard to avoid. Since the storm, many Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida and are eligible to vote, making support from the Puerto Rican diaspora even more critical.

Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from South Florida, said he did not understand why Mr. Trump would inaccurately state the death toll. “We should all be focused on what is about to happen in the Carolinas,” he said, “and not politicize hurricanes and hurricane relief.”

Correction: September 12, 2018
An earlier version of this article misstated when electricity was fully restored in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Power was restored in August — last month — not this month. An earlier version also misidentified the government entity that revised the territory’s death toll. The revised toll of 2,975 was accepted by the Puerto Rican government, not the federal government.

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Source: As a New Hurricane Roars In, Trump Quarrels Over the Last One