Two of Florida's top Republicans on Thursday distanced themselves from President Donald Trump's false claim that Hurricane Maria did not kill nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico last year, despite an estimate accepted by the island's government.
Both Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate in the state, and former Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is running to succeed Scott, issued statements affirming their belief in the death count. Puerto Ricans are a key potential voting bloc in Florida's closely contested elections. Following the 2017 hurricane, thousands of Puerto Ricans were estimated to have moved to the state.
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"I disagree with @POTUS," Scott tweeted. "An independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed."
He added: "I've been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. 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."
DeSantis' communications director echoed Scott's sentiment, telling reporters in a statement that the gubernatorial candidate "doesn't believe any loss of life has been inflated."
"Ron DeSantis has always worked to help the Puerto Rican community, both on the Island and here in Florida," said Stephen Lawson, communications director for the DeSantis campaign. "He doesn't believe any loss of life has been inflated. Ron is focused on continuing to help our Puerto Rican neighbors recover and create opportunities for those who have moved to Florida succeed."
DeSantis' statement did not mention Trump by name, but his campaign's decision to come out against the President's view was particularly noteworthy given the candidate openly courted Trump during his primary campaign and has commended him countless times.
As Hurricane Florence bears down on the East Coast, threatening to cause substantial damage, Trump disputed the death count from last year's hurricane, despite the government formally raising the death toll from the disaster to 2,975 following a study conducted by researchers at The George Washington University.
The study was commissioned by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
"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," he wrote.
He later blamed Democrats for the uptick in the death toll.
"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. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics," he wrote. "I love Puerto Rico!"
There is no evidence to back up Trump's tweets that politics played a role in calculating the death toll and the White House has not commented on the message from the President.
Trump's administration has been faulted for its response to Hurricane Maria. Most of the island was without power for weeks, causing many of those who died to succumb to the stifling heat or other aftereffects of the storm.
Trump has vociferously fought the criticism, arguing -- like he did in the Oval Office this week -- that the response was "incredibly successful."
"I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success," he said.
Many on the island disagree with that assessment, and the lackluster response was recently exemplified by a stockpile of water bottles sitting -- unused -- on a runway in Ceiba, a town on the island's east coast.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a vocal Trump critic, slammed the President's tweet on Thursday, calling them "delusional, paranoid, and unhinged from any sense of reality."
Rosselló also faulted the tweets, stating in a Facebook Live that "the victims and the people of Puerto Rico, in general, do not deserve their pain to be questioned."