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Fact Check: Trump's Claim About Puerto Rico Hurricane Death Toll

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

While much of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic are focusing on Hurricane Florence, President Trump is still talking about last year's Hurricane Maria. Today on Twitter, he disputed that nearly 3,000 people had died from the storm in Puerto Rico. That is the official death count. Trump said falsely that number reflected Democrats' efforts to make him look bad. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Ever since Hurricane Maria hit and devastated Puerto Rico, President Trump has been trying to tell a good-news story. Here he was last year during a visit to the island to assess storm damage.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overpowering...

KEITH: Trump turned to Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello.

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TRUMP: What is your death count as of this moment, 17?

RICARDO ROSSELLO: Sixteen certified.

TRUMP: Sixteen people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands.

KEITH: Trump then visited storm victims, tossed paper towels into the crowd like a mascot with free T-shirts at a sporting event and remarked on the love in the room. The disconnect between the president's assessment and the still-active disaster on the ground was dramatic. Months later, facing controversy over an artificially low death count, the government of Puerto Rico commissioned an independent study of deaths caused directly and indirectly by Hurricane Maria. That study, released last month, estimated 2,975 people died as a result of the storm. Governor Rossello quickly adopted it as the official death toll.

President Trump didn't question the number then, but this morning came the presidential tweets. Three thousand people did not die, Trump wrote. He said that when he left the island, it was still less than 20, but, quote, "a long time later, they started to report really large numbers like 3,000. This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible."

To be clear, this was not a Democratic conspiracy aimed at Trump. So why the tweets? It's now a familiar cycle for President Trump. Earlier this week, a reporter asked about lessons learned from what happened in Puerto Rico. There were lessons, but that's not where Trump went.

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TRUMP: I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success.

KEITH: It was just the latest example of President Trump cheerleading in the face of a dire reality. People like San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz shot back, citing the death toll, including in this interview with Reuters.

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CARMEN YULIN CRUZ: If he calls a success or a - an unsung success 3,000 people dying on his watch, definitely he doesn't know what success is.

KEITH: The presidential tweets that followed were almost inevitable. People died, but Trump was telling followers to believe him, not the official numbers he didn't like. It's something he's done with increasing frequency. And as often happens, House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked to weigh in...

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PAUL RYAN: Casualties don't make a person look bad. That's not - so I have no reason to dispute these numbers.

KEITH: ...And politely pushed back on the president's effort to build an alternate reality.

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RYAN: Roads were washed out. Power was gone. And the casualties mounted for a long time. So I have no reason to dispute those numbers.

KEITH: And in another recurring theme of the Trump presidency, regardless of what the president says, the rest of the U.S. government is moving forward. FEMA assessed its performance after last year's hurricane season and says it has made changes to try to avoid the mistakes of the past. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.