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Trump’s latest rant about Puerto Rico’s death toll makes no sense

The president seems mad that people still want to talk about Hurricane Maria.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: People march to Trump Tower following a service at St. Bartholomew’s Church for the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria which cut through Puerto Rico exactly one year ago today on September 20, 2018 in New York, New York.
Puerto Ricans in New York march to Trump Tower one the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s deadly landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2018.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is really, really upset that Puerto Ricans aren’t thanking him for the administration’s help after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria.

In a radio interview with Geraldo Rivera that aired Monday morning, Trump shared his thoughts on recent events. He discussed the scandal involving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and the controversy surrounding deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The president’s demeanor was calm and friendly, until the conversation turned to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. That set him off.

Over a period of several minutes, Trump casually rejected Puerto Rico’s request for statehood, smeared San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz with an unsubstantiated claim that she diverted supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and ranted about the official hurricane death toll of 2,975 people.

Yes, once again, Trump disputed the validity of rigorous, independent research on the number of people who died in connection to Hurricane Maria. Here’s what he said:

After I left, it was 16 people that died. The 16 people was then lifted a couple of months later to 64 and that was the official number. And then all of a sudden, I read a report, many, many months later — a long time later — that they did a report that 3,000 people died. And I was like, “Wait a minute, you went from 16 people to 64. We did a great job, and then you went from 64 to 3,000. How did that happen?” And they couldn’t explain it. If you read that report, it’s not explainable.

It’s actually not that hard to explain. Trump was referring to the latest hurricane death estimates, released last month by researchers at George Washington University, which showed that 2,975 people likely died directly and indirectly from the storm (both types of deaths are included in official death tolls).

The findings are consistent with estimates from scientists at Harvard and Penn State. Had Trump actually read the report, he would understand that researchers relied on widely accepted statistical science, death records, mortality data, and household surveys.

Trump can’t handle the criticism from San Juan’s mayor

Trump also used the interview to talk about the “great work” his administration did. And if anything bad did happen, according to Trump, it was entirely the fault of San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz. She has been the most vocal critic in Puerto Rico of Trump’s response to the hurricane, and it has clearly gotten under his skin. He described her as “incompetent” at least three times during the interview.

“She shouldn’t even be there; she doesn’t even know what she’s doing. She’s a totally incompetent person. Locally, they did a very, very poor job. The electricity was broken before the storms,” Trump said (the power grid was working when the hurricane hit).

He then proceeded to smear Yulín Cruz, implying that she did something illegal with the supplies FEMA shipped to Puerto Rico.

“You have to find out what she did with those supplies. ... When you find out what she did with those supplies, you will be shocked, it was disgraceful,” Trump said, without providing evidence or details to back up the claims.

And when Rivera asked him about the possibility of statehood for Puerto Rico, Trump cut him off, saying, “Nobody has mentioned that to me recently.” (Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló sent a letter to Trump requesting statehood last week.)

More than 50 members of Congress have co-sponsored a House bill that would make Puerto Rico the 51st US state by 2021, which would eventually need the president’s signature. In Monday’s interview, Trump rejected the idea of statehood for Puerto Rico, based on his contempt for Yulín Cruz.

“With the mayor of Puerto Rico as bad as she is and as incompetent as she is, Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people who know what they’re doing,” Trump said. “With people like that involved in Puerto Rico, I would be an absolute no. Whatever her name might be.”

Not once during the interview did Trump mention how FEMA delayed approving crucial disaster aid to Puerto Rico, or the fact that FEMA hired inexperienced contractors, including one that failed to deliver millions of emergency meals to hurricane survivors.

Instead, Trump seemed to insist that Puerto Ricans be grateful. “Instead of getting a thank-you, we got a lot of bad publicity,” he said.

“You’re hurt. I can feel the hurt in your voice,” Rivera said.

“No, I love the people in Puerto Rico ... they had so much water they didn’t know what to do with it,” Trump said, repeating another falsehood before ending the interview.

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