Ever since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands three weeks ago, the president has made a habit of painting the devastation as much less serious than it is. The federal government’s response has been “great,” “unprecedented,” and getting “great marks.” This pattern continued on Friday, during a speech at the Values Voter Summit in D.C., where Trump said the millions of victims in the U.S. territories were recovering with gusto. “They’re all healing,” he said. “And their states and territories are healing and they are healing rapidly.” Trump is not alone among Republicans. Congressman Scott Perry went on national television this week to say that Puerto Ricans aren’t really dying (they are) and the media is lying (we’re not).
Maria has officially killed 45 people in Puerto Rico, though the death toll is likely much higher. Several reported deaths were from leptospirosis, a treatable and entirely preventable illness contracted by drinking contaminated water. According to the EPA, people have been trying to get water from Superfund sites, which are the most toxic industrial waste sites in America. According to The Daily Beast, people are “sharing food, eating plants, and waiting” for U.S. government help to arrive.
Trump’s remarks about Puerto Ricans “healing rapidly” aren’t just harmless falsehoods. Many people believe him: 56 percent of Republicans say that the 3.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico are getting the help they need. And if Americans accept Trump’s Puerto Rico denial, he will face less pressure to approve adequate emergency relief funding or keep FEMA on the island (he has threatened to pull FEMA out). Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans will have little power—figuratively and literally—to fight for themselves. Not only do they lack a voting representative in Congress; 84 percent of them don’t have electricity.