Donald Trump’s Dismissal of the Puerto Rican Death Toll Is Reprehensible—But It’s Nothing New

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Commentary Politics

Donald Trump’s Dismissal of the Puerto Rican Death Toll Is Reprehensible—But It’s Nothing New

Joaquín Cotler

This is how he’s handled the situation every step of the way: accusing people advocating for Puerto Rican lives of politicizing the issue, citing false statistics, claiming landslide victory, and blaming the victims in order to control the narrative surrounding the federal response.

In a pair of back-to-back tweets last week, Donald Trump trivialized thousands of lost Puerto Rican lives in an effort to discredit his critics. By using ambiguous and false statistics and denying real ones, he accused “the Democrats” of inflating the Hurricane Maria death toll. He also used the opportunity to reinforce the White House’s official position: The federal response to the storm was excellent, and any criticism is unfounded and designed to make him look bad.

But this sarcastic, outright dismissal of the updated death toll—which as of today stands at 2,975—is just the most recent example of Trump’s seeming unwillingness to acknowledge the storm’s impact. Indeed, it is how he’s handled the situation every step of the way: accusing people advocating for Puerto Rican lives of politicizing the issue, citing false statistics, claiming landslide victory, and blaming the victims in order to control the narrative surrounding the federal response.

That’s exactly what he did back on September 30 of last year. It had been ten days since Maria had swept over the island. At a news conference one day prior, Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, made a plea for national attention. She likened the lack of federal response to a genocide. “If anyone out there is listening, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,” she said. She begged for more federal aid, and insisted that the recovery process was quickly becoming a humanitarian crisis.

The next day, Trump accused Yulin Cruz of politicizing the disaster, while taking a shot at Puerto Ricans for looking for a handout. In a series of tweets, the president wrote: “The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump … Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They … want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job. … The military and first responders, despite no electric, roads, phones etc., have done an amazing job. Puerto Rico was totally destroyed.”

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Since then, the president has consistently congratulated himself on the federal response to Hurricane Maria, calling it an “unappreciated great job” while underhandedly blaming Puerto Rico for its own problems. During his only post-Maria visit to the island almost two weeks after the storm, he reminded Puerto Ricans that despite the territory’s lack of financial sovereignty, their money woes are still a burden on the mainland—as if to remind them to be grateful.

“Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” Trump said, in a vain attempt at humor during a press conference. “Because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”

But he quickly downplayed Maria’s severity—by comparing it to Hurricane Katrina, a “real catastrophe,” and citing the difference in casualties.

“Every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous—hundreds and hundreds of people that died—and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering … no one has ever seen anything like this,” Trump said.

But Russel Honoré, the three-star general who had been in charge of the Hurricane Katrina recovery, saw it differently: “Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina,” Honore said on NPR’s Morning Edition on September 28, 2017. “And we had 20,000 federal troops, 20 ships, and 40,000 National Guard.”

An effigy hangs from a tree in Puerto Rico holding a Puerto Rican flag and a FEMA ration. (Joaquín Cotler / Rewire.News)

Despite Trump’s symbolic waiving of the Jones Act on September 28, which rolled back exorbitantly high import costs to the island, resources had already been backed up. Even when ships carrying food, water, and other aid supplies were able to dock and offload, there was a shortage of trucks and drivers to distribute their contents. Despite citizens’ and local government’s best efforts, many main roads throughout the island remained blocked until federal troops began clearing them. Bridges were washed out, and towns like Utuado, deep in the central mountains, were still completely isolated.

At the time of Trump’s visit on October 3, 2017, a typical line for gasoline could last at least an hour, and supplies were limited. Nearly everyone on the island was without power. Millions of people were still without running water. Some even sourced drinking water from Superfund sites they knew to be contaminated. It was a true, unmitigated disaster—and the island’s government lacked the planning, funding, and manpower to address it on their own.

Even Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who had been very careful about criticizing the president, would fly to the mainland for a press conference on October 19 to personally appeal to the president for federal aid money. The same day, Trump would give the relief response a 10 out of 10.

Federal resources were stretched very thin—and were simply unavailable to the people who needed them. And despite an estimated $94 billion in damage, Congress secured only $32 billion as of June to assist with the recovery, leaving massive gaps in aid to be filled by private contractors—over which the White House maintains influence. It would take 11 months to restore power to the entire island, and the grid is as fragile as it was before the storm. According to Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día, as of June of 2018, only 10 percent of the federal aid money Congress allocated had been disbursed.

But President Trump has insisted that the recovery went smoothly. Staying true to form, he used the weakened power plant as fodder for more false claims and victim-blaming, seemingly making excuses for the protracted rebuilding effort he has since touted as an “unsung success.”

“Don’t forget,” he said at the White House in August of this year, “their electric plant was dead before the hurricane. If you look back on your records, you’ll see that plant was dead, it was shut, it was bankrupt, it was out of business. They owed tremendous amounts of money. They had it closed up. And then when the hurricane came, people said, ‘What do are we going to do about electricity?’ That wasn’t really the hurricane. That was gone before the hurricane.”

Though this statement is based in reality—Gov. Rosselló also noted Puerto Rico’s poor energy infrastructure in a September 27 interview with the New York Times—it is an exaggeration and factually incorrect. The weakened power grid was damaged by Irma and in need of upgrades, but it remained online until Hurricane Maria disabled the entire island’s grid for the better part of a year.

Trump has continued to tout the federal response as a major success, and he has refused to address the casualties. By denying the magnitude of the disaster and taking jabs at Puerto Rico last week, he once again shifted the national conversation about the recovery away from the facts, while subtly vocalizing his extreme lack of empathy and apparent disdain for the millions of Puerto Ricans affected by this tragedy—on the island and on the mainland.

Still, the facts remain: The blackout from Hurricane Maria was the largest in U.S. history. The death toll, which hovered at 64 before a recent study placed it at 2,975, is higher than both Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. According to what experts are calling the “most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date,” Maria killed more Americans than any hurricane since 1900—and the president has yet to acknowledge it. Even though his office pledged in August to continue being “supportive of Governor Rosselló’s efforts to ensure a full accountability and transparency of fatalities resulting from last year’s hurricanes,” the much higher number didn’t fit Trump’s narrative—so he rebuked it.

This is just the White House’s latest attempt at controlling the narrative about Puerto Rico with lies. Trump continues to claim not only that the federal government has done a great job, but that it has done all it can—in order to justify continuing along this same path. He’s essentially absolved himself of any responsibility. He’s told the Puerto Rican people that their lives do not matter, and the deaths of their loved ones are not on his hands. He’s shoved the plight of an entire island, and its diaspora, in their own faces.

Yet despite Trump’s cynical misinformation campaign surrounding Puerto Rico, his latest tweets regarding the death count have stirred controversy—even among those who traditionally have supported him. Though he blamed the Democrats for smearing his relief efforts, there were a number of vocal responses from politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle.

Senator Kamala Harris tweeted simply, “We won’t let their deaths be erased,” while Speaker Paul Ryan said he has “no reason to dispute these numbers.” Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro called the president’s comments “absurd and gross.” Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott tweeted, “I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed. I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand.”

But nobody put it more concisely or directly than Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been one of the most vocal advocates for the Puerto Rican people since the storm. On September 13, she responded to Trump’s dismissal of the new death toll and obsession with discrediting his critics in a pair of her own tweets: