Several Republicans have rushed to distance themselves from President Donald Trump's claim that Hurricane Maria and its aftermath did not result in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico.
Among them, Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott, who is running for Senate, and former Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is running to replace Scott, both issued statements in connection to the death toll. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan also affirmed his belief in the fatality count.
Notably, Florida is a known swing state with often close elections, and has a huge Latino population. It is estimated that thousands of Puerto Ricans relocated to the state after the devastating hurricane last year.
"I disagree with [Trump]," Scott tweeted Thursday. "An independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed. 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".
Speaking on his behalf, DeSantis' communications director told reporters that the gubernatorial candidate stands with the Puerto Rican community. "Ron DeSantis has always worked to help the Puerto Rican community – both on the Island and here in Florida," Stephen Lawson said. "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."
While Lawson did not reference Trump directly, it was certainly a break from what had so far been a close alliance between DeSantis and the president. Trump openly endorsed DeSantis during the Republican primary in Florida, and DeSantis has praised the president numerous times.
Ryan was specifically asked about Trump's tweets Thursday morning, in which the president rejected the findings from a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government. "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," he replied. "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."
However, Ryan stopped short of calling out Trump. "It’s a function of – this was a devastating storm that hit an isolated island," he reiterated. "And that’s really no one’s fault – that is just what happened.”
As Hurricane Florence made it way toward the East Coast, one reporter asked the president in the Oval Office this week what his administration was able to learn from its response to Puerto Rico. "I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success," he said, refusing to acknowledge any negligence.
Then, on Twitter, the president doubled down, writing: "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..."
In a follow-up tweet, he added: "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!"
Previously, the Puerto Rican government had listed the official death toll from the Hurricane at 64, but after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló commissioned an independent study conducted by George Washington University, researchers determined that the death toll was actually 2,975. The government then formally raised it.
In a Facebook Live, Rosselló condemned Trump tweets, according to CNN, saying "the victims and the people of Puerto Rico, in general, do not deserve their pain to be questioned."