TALLAHASSEE – President Donald Trump’s claim Thursday that Democrats inflated last year’s death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria prompted disagreement from his biggest Florida allies, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis.
“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 DeSantis campaign spokesman, in a rare instance of disagreement with Trump.
Other top Florida Republicans also denounced Trump’s claim Thursday.
Trump, who endorsed DeSantis and campaigned for him in his primary bid, made the allegation on Twitter in response to concerns about the president’s characterization of the U.S. hurricane response in Puerto Rico as “an unsung success.” Trump rejected an independent estimate that states 2,975 people on the island died last year after Maria plowed through.
Republican Ron DeSantis will face Democrat Andrew Gillum in Florida’s race for governor.
The president’s early morning tweet read, “3000 people 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.
“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,” the president’s tweets continued. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
Republican Gov. Rick Scott, also a longtime Trump ally who now is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, responded on Twitter that he disagreed with the president’s rejection of the independent study.
“I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation first hand,” Scott tweeted. “The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching. I’ll continue to help PR.”
Scott has, at times, differed with Trump despite their close alliance. But Thursday’s disagreement was rare for DeSantis, who is relying on the president’s continued support.
Florida has the largest concentration of displaced Puerto Ricans in the country, and with the contentious 2018 midterms approaching, their vote could be decisive in November. Both political parties have courted Puerto Rican voters for months, showing that demographic’s importance in Florida’s elections.
As DeSantis continues to rely on the president’s continued support, his disagreement with the president on this issue was notable.
His campaign issued a statement that highlighted how DeSantis worked to help Puerto Rico after the storm.
“As Chairman of the National Security Subcommittee, he conducted an oversight hearing earlier this year to identify deficiencies in the federal response to Hurricane Maria,” the statement said.
DeSantis, however, stopped short of saying whether he disagreed with Trump’s praise of the U.S. hurricane response in Puerto Rico. The campaign instead said DeSantis would continue to “help our Puerto Rican neighbors recover and create opportunities for those who have moved to Florida succeed.”
State Rep. Bob Cortes, DeSantis’ Puerto Rico outreach chair, said he agrees with DeSantis that “no estimates regarding loss of life have been inflated” and that they “remain focused on ensuring a full recovery of the island.”
In a harsher tone, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged mistakes made by both the federal and local governments after the hurricane and urged a stop to the “blame game.”
“Early response to Puerto Rico Hurricane wasn’t good, but not because federal government didn’t care,” Rubio tweeted. He instead pointed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency model not working on the island as well as it does in the mainland.
DeSantis’ Democratic opponent in the general election race for governor, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, said the president’s rejection of the independent study’s death toll in Puerto Rico was “absolutely outrageous.”
“The mayor believes President Trump’s conspiracy theory and ‘success’ comment are both absolutely outrageous and that our fellow Puerto Rican citizens deserve much better from him,” Gillum’s campaign spokesman, Geoff Burgan, said in a statement.
In 2016, Gillum faced his own share of criticism over the city of Tallahassee’s response to reconnecting power to residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Hermine. The Category 1 storm cut power for more than 75,000 customers of the city’s municipally-owned electric system for up to a week. Downed trees were the primary cause of the outage.
Scott at the time criticized Gillum, saying the mayor refused the state’s help to restore power.
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