Trump’s stunning new conspiracy theory
AS HURRICANE Florence slammed into the coast of the United States in recent days, Donald Trump was obsessing over the death toll of another storm, Maria, which devastated the American territory Puerto Rico last year and left most of its residents without power.
A painstaking analysis conducted by George Washington University and commissioned by the Puerto Rican government has concluded 2,975 people died in Hurricane Maria's wake, a toll rivalling that of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Mr Trump believes that figure has been inflated by his political opponents to make him look bad.
"Three thousand 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 six to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much," Mr Trump tweeted yesterday.
"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.
"If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"
So, does the president's rather stunning conspiracy theory have any merit? Let's take a closer look at the study.
Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 and cut power to 80 per cent of the island.
Thousands of sick and elderly people were left without water, electricity or medicine for months, with America's emergency department FEMA stretched woefully thin.
In the fortnight after the storm, as Mr Trump made a quick, four-hour visit to the island, the official death toll did indeed stand at 16, as he has claimed. But according to experts on the ground, that toll was woefully inaccurate.
Competing estimates started to appear in the ensuing months, some of which put the true toll at over 1,000.
So, how did George Washington University calculate its figure of 2,975?
It examined the number of "excess deaths" in the six months after Maria hit. Emphasis on the word excess.
"Our excess mortality study analysed past mortality patterns (mortality registration and population census data from 2010 to 2017) in order to predict the expected mortality if Hurricane Maria had not occurred (predicted mortality) and compare this figure to the actual deaths that occurred (observed mortality)," the study says.
It found there were 3000 more deaths than would usually be expected during those six months.
Those deaths can be attributed to the effects of the hurricane, particularly the lack of access to health care among Puerto Rico's poorer residents.
In response to Mr Trump, the study's authors have called it "the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date".
Why is Mr Trump so sensitive about the reported death toll? It might be because he was accused of providing insufficient support to Puerto Rico in Maria's aftermath.
He came under fire for jetting off on a golf trip while the mayor of the island's biggest city, San Juan, pleaded for more help.
"I will do what I never thought I was going to do - begging. Begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy," Mayor Carmen Cruz said.
Instead of asking whether he really could do more, Mr Trump took it as a personal attack on him and lashed out at Ms Cruz, who at the time was sleeping in a shelter because her house had been wrecked and was spending her days wading through floodwaters trying to help survivors.
Again, Mr Trump framed it as an attempt by his political opponents to shame him.
"The mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump," the president said.
"Such poor leadership 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."
Puerto Rico is a US territory. So just to be clear, that was the president of the United States attacking American disaster victims for wanting too much of his help. He felt he was the true victim.
Speaking to reporters this week, he was full of praise for his administration's response to the disaster.
"I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful," Mr Trump said. "I actually think it was one of the best jobs that's ever been done with respect to what this is all about."
'A POLITICAL AGENDA'
A handful of Mr Trump's supporters in the media have backed up his stunning conspiracy theory in recent days.
"The Hurricane Maria death tolls have been inflated and President Donald Trump was right to call out organisations who threw out science and statistics to try to discredit his administration," said Fox Business host Lou Dobbs.
"They say all these people died in the storm in Puerto Rico, yet 70 per cent of the power was out before the storm. So when did people start dying? At what point do you recognise that what they are doing is a political agenda couched in the nice language of journalism?" said another Fox star, Geraldo Rivera.
"The story of Puerto Rico is the rebuilding that has occurred. The president has done an extraordinary job of clean-up, rebuilding electrical stuff and everything else."
Others have slammed Mr Trump for prioritising his own political standing over the victims of the natural disaster.
"We need to deal with the facts, which is these 2,975 people did not die of old age. That is not true. They did not die of old age, they died of neglect. They would be alive today if they had had electricity, if they had been able to get medicine, if they had been able to get water. Those are the people that are counted," said CNN host Alisyn Camerota.
But we will give the final word to Ms Cruz, the San Juan mayor who once begged for Mr Trump's help.
"This is what denial following neglect looks like," said Ms Cruz.
"Mr President in the real world people died on your watch. Your lack of respect is appalling.
"Shame on you."