View of a Puerto Rican flag placed on a pair of shoes among hundreds displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018
Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump on Thursday rejected the official death toll from last year's Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, saying it had been inflated to almost 3,000 as part of a ploy to make him look bad.
Trump's controversial remarks sparked a rare bipartisan backlash, with even some members of his own party echoing the condemnation from Democratic opposition leaders.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a veteran Republican congresswoman from Florida, said Trump "has a warped mind that would turn this statistic into fake news."
"It might be a new low," she said. "How could you be so self-centered and try to distort the truth so much?"
The true human cost of Maria, and the chaotic federal response to the storm on the US island territory, triggered a year-long controversy, which Trump revived this week even as another powerful hurricane, Florence, bore down on the East Coast.
"3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico," Trump tweeted early Thursday. "When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths."
"Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000..." he said, going on to claim: "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."
- Death Toll -
Hurricane Maria killed 2,975 people in Puerto Rico, a long-awaited independent investigation by George Washington University into the 2017 storm concluded last month. It was initially said to have killed just 64 people.
After nearly a year of controversy over the figures, the island's governor said the new estimate would now be considered the official death toll.
George Washington University stood by the science behind its findings, calling the figure of 2,975 deaths "the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date."
Another study carried out by Harvard University and published in May estimated the death toll from the hurricane and its aftermath could have been higher than 4,600.
Hurricane Florence is the first major test of the Federal Emergency Management Agency since its much-criticized response to Maria, which caused devastation when it struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm a year ago.
A US government report published this month concluded that the federal response in Puerto Rico was hampered by a lack of trained staff as well as by major logistical challenges.
But Trump has continued to boast about the handling of Maria, calling it "an incredible unsung success" as he warned residents of the Carolinas not to take chances with Florence.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority leader, said Trump owed an apology to the 3,000 families for "the shameful attack on deceased fellow Americans."
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz called the president's comments "delusional, paranoid and unhinged from any sense of reality."
"Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. It is not," she said on her official Twitter account.
"Damn it, this is not about politics, this was always about saving lives," she told NBC television. Cruz had earlier described the federal disaster response in the US territory a "despicable act of neglect."
"If (Trump) doesn't learn from his mistakes, he's going to make them again and people are going to continue to die," she told CNN television.
In Florida, which was badly hit by Hurricane Irma last year and which received thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastation of their homes, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis -- who has built his campaign around his adherence to Trump's politics -- tried to distance himself from the president's words.
DeSantis "doesn't believe any loss of life has been inflated," his campaign said in a statement.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello also has criticized Trump for not providing additional federal funds still needed for emergency housing and debris removal.
Rossello is a leader of the island's pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which aligns with Republicans, while Cruz is from the Popular Democratic Party, whose members affiliate with the Democratic Party.
Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's electricity grid, leaving the island largely without power for weeks and crippling its health care system.