WASHINGTON, U.S. - Retaliating against the criticism his administration has drawn over the handling of last year's Puerto Rico disaster - the U.S. President Donald Trump accused the Democrats of inflating the storm death toll.
Earlier this week, Trump expressed confidence in the government's preparedness for Hurricane Florence, which was dubbed to become the most powerful storm to threaten the Carolinas in near three decades.
In a statement, Trump said his government would spare "no expense" in responding to Hurricane Florence and then went on to praise his government's response to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
The U.S. President called it "one of the best jobs that has ever been done" and described it as an "incredible, unsung success."
Trump's statement however, came in stark contrast to the assessment made by Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan - who has described Trump's response to the disaster as a "stain on his presidency."
Last month, authorities revised the official death toll from Hurricane Maria to nearly 50 times higher than the 64 deaths reported initially.
An independent academic study by George Washington University, which was commissioned by Puerto Rico's government, put the death toll from Hurricane Maria at 2,975 people - between September 2017 to February 2018.
In September 2017, Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma before Hurricane Maria struck the region.
Hurricane Maria became the most powerful storm in almost a century, to hit the island that houses over 3 million people.
The fierce storm left much of the Caribbean island without electricity for months and wrecked havoc to the region's infrastructure, destroying roads and bridges.
However, Maria's emergency response became highly politicized.
At the time, the Trump administration was criticized as being slow to recognize the extent of the devastation.
Then, the U.S. Government was blamed for being too sluggish in providing disaster relief to Puerto Rico.
On Thursday, contesting the findings, Trump wrote on Twitter, “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 followed it up by another extraordinary claim, calling the official death toll a political scheme.
Trump wrote, "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!"
Trump's tweets drew widespread anger, with some well-known Republicans too splitting with the President on the issue.
In its response to Trump's rejection of the toll, the George Washington University - which published the study - stood by its estimate.
It said in a statement, “We are confident that the number - 2,975 - is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date."
Meanwhile, the U.S. territory’s governor, Ricardo Rossello has backed the study and said that Puerto Ricans “do not deserve to have their pain questioned."
Releasing a video on Facebook, Rossello said, “We left this analysis to the scientists and experts, recognizing that there would be many challenges, because we wanted to have a powerful and independent voice to minimize the uncertainty."
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz responding by calling the President "delusional" and "unhinged from reality."
Cruz took to Twitter to respond to Trump and wrote, “This is what denial following neglect looks like: Mr Pres in the real world people died on your watch. YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING!”
On Friday, the top Republican in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, broke with Trump over the dispute.
When asked about Trump's assertions, Ryan said he had "no reason to dispute the official death toll."
Adding, "You couldn’t get to people for a long time on the island because roads were washed out, power was gone and the casualties mounted for a long time. So I have no reason to dispute those numbers. Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island."
Responding to Trump's claims, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said "tragedy should not be politicized."
Meanwhile, Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott wrote on Twitter, “I disagree with @POTUS."
Further, retiring Miami Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, "
“There is evidence, truthful facts that there have been these number of deaths. No one is distorting the truth. It might be a new low."
Ros-Lehtinen added that only a “warped mind that would turn this statistic into fake news” about himself.
A South Florida Republican, Representative Carlos Curbelo said he did not understand "why Trump would inaccurately state the number of people who died."
Curbelo said, “We should all be focused on what is about to happen in the Carolinas and not politicize hurricanes and hurricane relief."
Further, with Hurricane Florence unleashing fierce rains as it hit the coast of North Carolina on Friday, frustration reportedly grew within the White House too, as sources claims officials were exasperated with the president’s focus on Puerto Rico with Florence set to wreck havoc on the U.S. East Coast.
Meanwhile, accused of "bad politics," Democratic lawmakers seized on the president’s inaccurate facts.
New Jersey Democrat, Senator Robert Menendez wrote on Twitter, “You’re right, Mr. President. The Hurricane didn’t kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did.
And the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi said that the president “prefers his ‘alternative facts’ to the tragedy faced by families of the lost.”
Mississippi Democrat, Representative Bennie Thompson called for the president to resign and said in a statement, “The fact that the President will not take responsibility for his administration’s failures and will not even recognize that thousands have perished shows us, once again, that he is not fit to serve as our president."
Experts noted that a poor response to hurricanes - which typically provide a platform for elected officials to display leadership - can do significant damage to approval ratings.