Mixed reaction from Ryan, Senate Republicans to Trump tweets doubting Puerto Rico death toll

PHOTO: House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during a news conference, Sept. 13, 2018, in Washington.PlayJacquelyn Martin/AP
WATCH Speaker Ryan reacts to Trump tweets doubting Puerto Rico death toll

House Speaker Paul Ryan was the highest-ranking Republican to comment on President Donald Trump’s tweets Thursday questioning the death toll in Puerto Rico after last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria.

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In a news conference Thursday, Ryan said he had “no reason to dispute” a study from George Washington University, commissioned by the Puerto Rican government, that concluded 2,975 people perished as a result of the hurricane, more than 4,500 percent higher than the original estimate of 64 people.

“Casualties don’t make a person look bad,” Ryan said. “I have no reason to dispute these numbers. I was in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. It was devastated. This was a horrible storm. I toured the entire island. It’s an isolated island that lost its infrastructure and its power for a long time.”

An aerial image showing the damage done to the Morovis area of Puerto Rico three days after hurricane Maria passed through the island on Sept. 20, 2017.David Villafane/gfrmedia via AP Photo, FILE
An aerial image showing the damage done to the Morovis area of Puerto Rico three days after hurricane Maria passed through the island on Sept. 20, 2017.

He added, “This was a devastating storm that hit an isolated island, and that's really no one's fault. That is just what happened.”

Although it appeared that he was talking about the unstoppable nature of the weather event itself, the latter comment elicited a strong response on Twitter, where multiple users accused Ryan of failing to stand up to Trump’s false and incendiary rhetoric.

Other Republican members of Congress also reaffirmed, as Ryan did, their belief in the government-sanctioned study that showed a much higher number than originally reported.

“The official count, as I understand it, is 3,000 people died as a result of that hurricane. So that’s the number we should accept but we also should not play politics on either side of this,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit residents affected by Hurricane in Guaynabo, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, 2017.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit residents affected by Hurricane in Guaynabo, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, 2017.

Some Senate Republicans, though, appeared to back the president up somewhat, by raising questions about how the official estimate was determined.

“I really don’t know the number of deaths but it is certainly more than 16 whatever the initial reports were. It’d be interesting to find out exactly what happened. Were the deaths the result of the hurricane itself or inability to get food or water afterward? I don’t know. It’s something I’d be interested in finding out,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.

“I don’t buy the idea that the president is indifferent to our friends in PR. I don’t buy that but I do believe we can learn from the mistakes that were made in Puerto Rico,” he added.

“There is a big difference between what was originally reported and what ended up being the final figure, and I think that I'd like to know why that is. I think the president is in a position to find out why that is and I hope he can report the reason,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

But Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello, a Republican, reaffirmed in a statement Thursday that the revised study was sanctioned by his administration and should be considered the “official number.”

“The victims in Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico, do not deserve that their pain is questioned. Today I’ve seen that the number and process to find excess deaths has been questioned and it is something that we have to leave behind,” he said, in Spanish.

Estimates of direct deaths in a hurricane typically include those caused by drowning in a storm surge or another event that occurs while the storm is taking place. Indirect deaths comprise those from events that arise as a consequence of a disaster, like heart attacks, house fires and car accidents.

Instances of people unable to obtain critical food, water and medicine were widely reported as well.

The Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, also reaffirmed its conclusions Thursday. “We are confident that the number — 2,975 — is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date,” a Milken statement said.

At least one other Republican said he agreed with Trump that Democrats were taking advantage of natural disasters for political gain.

“There's no doubt that there are a number of Democrats that are trying to play politics on hurricanes and in particular using Puerto Rico as an excuse to attack the president,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said.

Retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was one of the lone Republicans to lash out at President Trump's tweet Thursday, calling it "dehumanizing" and suggesting that Trump doesn't consider Puerto Ricans American citizens but "brown stepchildren."

“If this were North Carolina I don't think he would be tweeting these heartless words,” she said.

ABC’s John Parkinson and Ben Siegel contributed to this report.

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