President Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited FEMA headquarters Wednesday where they received a briefing on the 2018 hurricane season, amid growing pressure and criticism from congressional Democrats over the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
The visit comes days after new reports suggested that the actual death toll in Puerto Rico from Maria may be more than 70 times the official estimate, with a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine documenting 4,645 “excess deaths” between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, compared to the government’s original official death toll of 64.
The president and first lady sat at the head of the table in the National Response Coordination Center in Washington listening to officials explain the road ahead for the season, marking the first time White House reporters have seen Mrs. Trump at a public event in 27 days.
The president used most of his hurricane-related remarks to tout the federal government’s response, with no acknowledgment of some of the criticism that has been levied over the death toll and slow recovery in Puerto Rico. He included Puerto Rico in a long list of states and regions hardest hit and made no mention of the continuing problems in the U.S. territory.
“As we enter the hurricane season again, here we go, right? Are you ready?” Trump said. “We’re entering it. We’re marshaling every available resource for every preparation for rapid response. That is what we had last year.”
Trump has previously given his administration a perfect “10 out of 10” score when asked to rate his administration’s response to the hurricane devastation and also sought to positively contrast his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria to Hurricane Katrina, which he called a “real catastrophe.”
“Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous, hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering, no one has ever seen anything like this,” Trump said October 3 during a visit to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm.
The president said at the time that first responders and the government should be “very proud” of what he cast as a relatively low death toll, especially in contrast to 1,833 people who died in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, according to FEMA.
“16 people, versus in the thousands, you can be very proud,” Trump said. “16 versus literally thousands of people, you can be very proud.”
That comment still enrages some Democrats, including Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who complains that the fatality numbers “drive the narrative about what happened in Puerto Rico and how our government responded and how we should rebuild going forward.”
“Yes Mr. President, this is a real catastrophe,” Velazquez, D-N.Y., told reporters at the Capitol Wednesday, directing her comments toward President Trump. “So, Mr. President, when you are visiting FEMA today to mark the beginning of hurricane season, let’s be clear: this is not the time for self-congratulations or victory laps. Sadly, we may never know the true number of deaths, however going forward we need transparency and a full accounting of the facts.”
Last December, Velazquez asked for an audit of the death count. Now she’s requesting a congressionally-authorized, independent, non-partisan investigation in the mold of the 9/11 commission to evaluate disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.
“I expect that once all of the information is brought to light, we will find our government’s inadequate response to Maria constitutes a stain on the moral conscience of our nation,” she said.
“It’s obvious that the numbers we got were wrong,” Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., added. “I’ve seen a lot of disasters in this country, and I’ve seen a quick response. The response to Puerto Rico was slow.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said that the Government Accountability Office has accepted his request to examine the death toll.
“What we saw in Puerto Rico was absolutely a failure to perform,” Thompson, D-Miss., said. “This is totally unacceptable. The lights are on in Texas. The lights are on in Florida but somehow they’re not on in Puerto Rico. And we need to find out why.”
Asked if the president still stands by that perfect-score rating on Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders didn’t directly answer but applauded the federal government’s response.
“The federal response, once again, was at a historic proportion,” Sanders said. “We’re continuing to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do the best we can to provide federal assistance, particularly working with the governor there in Puerto Rico. And we’ll continue to do so.”
ABC News’ Joshua Hoyos contributed to this report.