President Donald Trump's claim that his administration’s response to the devastation in Puerto Rico last year was an “unsung success” could be a gift to Democrats in Florida.
Trump’s controversial tweet comes after Florida Republicans have spent months courting Puerto Rican voters, who traditionally favor Democrats, ahead of the 2018 midterm election. As many as 250,000 Puerto Ricans are believed to have left the island in the wake of Maria, many resettling in the Orlando area of central Florida. However, it is unclear how many have since registered to vote in Florida, or have returned to the island.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis and U.S. Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott have campaigned heavily for their vote as well as making several visits to the U.S. territory to view the destruction and recovery efforts. Both are in tight races with Democrats who are hoping the Puerto Rican vote could help swing the state in their favor. Republicans have controlled all statewide public offices for the last two decades.
Scott and DeSantis, who have previously expressed strong support for Trump, on this occasion distanced themselves from the president. “I disagree with POTUS [Trump]– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed,” Scott tweeted. “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.”
“Ron DeSantis is committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community, especially after such a tragic loss of life,” campaign spokesperson Stephen Lawson said in a statement. “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.”
Trump's tweets bristled over criticism of the response to Hurricane Maria, in which 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico. “We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!” Trump tweeted.
The administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico received widespread criticism, but after visiting the island last September, Trump said that Puerto Ricans were fortunate that the storm did not yield a catastrophe akin to the from 64 to 2,975. The storm is also estimated to have caused $100 billion in damage.
A day earlier, the president praised the response to the series of storms. “I think Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success.”
Other Republican officials, including Miami Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, criticized the president’s remarks.
“To treat the deaths as a political tools is shameless and disgusting,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It’s hard to fathom how one could look at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of deaths and make it about you. It’s unfathomable. It’s time that we recognize that we failed in our mission to protect life and try not to ever do that again. But if we’re not going to admit the mistakes then, by golly, we have a hurricane headed our way again and South Carolinians are just as American as Puerto Ricans.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted: “3k more Americans died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane than during comparable periods before. Both Fed & local gov made mistakes. We all need to stop the blame game & focus on recovery, helping those still hurting & fixing the mistakes.”
Democrats seized on Trump’s unkind words. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez argued it wasn’t the hurricane that killed 3,000 people. "Your botched response did,” Menendez tweeted.
Sen. Bill Nelson called Trump’s assertions “shameful.”
“No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from @realDonaldTrump before, during, and after the hurricane,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum tweeted.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, also seized on Trump’s use of the word “successful” and said in a statement issued later Tuesday: “No relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called ‘successful’ because Puerto Ricans lack certain inalienable rights enjoyed by our fellow Americans in the states.”
Rossello called Hurricane Maria “the worst natural disaster in our modern history” and said work still remained before they could move on to other stages of recovery. He also said he was still waiting for Trump to respond to a petition to help Puerto Rico complete work on emergency housing restoration programs and debris removal.
(Information from the Associated Press was used in this report).