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White House defends Trump on Puerto Rico death toll claim

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  • WASHINGTON — As Hurricane Florence bore down on the U.S., President Donald Trump angrily churned up the devastating storm of a year earlier, disputing the official death count from Hurricane Maria and falsely accusing Democrats of inflating the Puerto Rican toll to make him “look as bad as possible.”

    Public health experts have estimated that nearly 3,000 perished because of the effects of Maria. But Trump, whose efforts to help the island territory recover have been persistently criticized, was having none of that Thursday. He said just six to 18 people had been reported dead when he visited two weeks after the storm and suggested that many had been added later “if a person died for any reason, like old age.”

    Trump’s jarring comments, coming as the East Coast braced for the massive storm, which later made landfall early Friday in North Carolina, offered fresh evidence of his resistance to criticism and his insistence on viewing large and small events through the prism of his own success or failure.

    Offering up a fresh conspiracy theory, he said of the Puerto Rico count, “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.”

    Even some Republicans suggested the president had gone too far.

    “Casualties don’t make a person look bad,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, breaking with the president. “So I have no reason to dispute those numbers.”

    Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who talks to Trump often, said, “I don’t think it’s bad to say we could have done better in Puerto Rico.” He also said he thought Trump “sees every attack on him as sort of undercutting his legitimacy.”

    Especially upset were GOP politicians in Florida, a state with a substantial Puerto Rican population.

    Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for the U.S. Senate, tweeted: “I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. The loss of any life is tragic.” A spokesman for former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who won the Florida GOP primary for governor with Trump’s support, said he did not agree with Trump’s tweets.

    The White House defended the president.

    “As the President said, every death from Hurricane Maria is a horror. Before, during, and after the two massive hurricanes, the President directed the entire Administration to provide unprecedented support to Puerto Rico,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said. “President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan Mayor who sadly, have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing out a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations.”

    Gidley cited studies that attributed fewer than 3,000 deaths on the island to Maria.

    Throughout his presidency, Trump has struggled to publicly express empathy at times of national crises, sparking outrage during his post-Maria visit when he feuded with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and tossed out paper towels to victims like he was shooting baskets. In recent days, Trump publicly lauded his own administration’s response to Maria and privately groused over storm-related news coverage that he saw as overly focused on Puerto Rico, according to two Republican advisers close to the White House who weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

    Puerto Rico’s governor last month raised Maria’s official death toll from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study found that the number of people who succumbed in the sweltering aftermath had been severely undercounted. Trump dismissed the findings Thursday, tweeting: “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list.”

    In fact, there are two categories of disaster deaths. “Direct” deaths include such fatalities as drownings in a storm surge or being crushed in a wind-toppled building. “Indirect” deaths are harder to count because they can include such things as heart attacks, electrocutions from downed power lines and failure to receive dialysis because the power is out — and those kinds of fatalities can happen after a storm has ended but while an area is struggling to restore electricity, clean water and other health and safety services.

    When Trump visited in October 2017, two weeks after the storm hit, the death toll at the time was indeed 16 people. The number was later raised to 64, but the government then commissioned an independent study to determine how many died because of post-storm conditions. That study — conducted by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University — estimated 2,975 deaths.

    Dr. Carlos Santos-Burgoa — the lead researcher on the study and a well-known expert in global health, particularly Latin America — told The Associated Press that the initial figure of 64 deaths reflected only people whose death certificates cited the storm. He said the latest figure was more accurate and stressed that every death in the six months following the storm was not attributed to the hurricane.

    “We are scientists. We are public health people. We are committed to the health of the population. We try to reach the truth, and we try to understand what is damaging the people in order to prevent disease,” he said.

    Puerto Rico’s government is run by the New Progressive party, a pro-statehood, Puerto Rico-only party. Gov. Ricardo Rossello told CBS New York on Thursday that he was a Democrat but stressed that the government sought the study and said it “tried to make this process a completely independent process.”

    State and local officials are responsible for establishing death tolls, not the federal government. After the total was revised Aug. 28, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement in which she did not actively dispute the revised figure.

    Trump’s fresh anger drew swift rebukes from elected officials and residents of the island, where blackouts remain common, 60,000 homes still have makeshift roofs and 13 per cent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service. A U.S. territory since 1898, Puerto Rico’s inhabitants are citizens, though they cannot vote in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.

    Cruz, the Democratic San Juan mayor who has sparred with the president, tweeted: “Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT.” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who spent part of his youth in Puerto Rico, spoke on the House floor in front of a printout of the Puerto Rican flag, saying Trump is “delusional” and incapable of “empathy or basic human decency.”

    Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to the GOP majority Thursday calling for the panel to request documents from the White House relating to the Puerto Rico response.

    Trump maintained as recently as Tuesday that his response to the storm was an “incredible unsung success.”

    ___

    Associated Press reporters Colleen Long, Lauran Neergaard and Alan Fram in Washington, Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Michael Weissenstein in Havana, Cuba, and Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.

    Catherine Lucey, Zeke Miller And Jonathan Lemire, The Associated Press



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    National

    Freeland says Khashoggi case not closed; but Trump says facts may never be known

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  • OTTAWA — Canada will use the upcoming G20 summit to push for answers in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says.

    Freeland said Tuesday Canada considers his murder to be very much an open case, a contrast to a statement by U.S. President Donald Trump that the facts surrounding Khashoggi’s death might just never be known.

    “Canada very much does not consider the Khashoggi affair to be closed,” Freeland said, hours after Trump released a statement that attempted to bring the controversy to a close for the U.S.

    Freeland said she expects the Khashoggi case to be an issue during the talks among leaders of the world’s 20 top economies in early December in Argentina, and says Canada will persist with its push for a transparent international investigation.

    “It is very clearly Canada’s position that those responsible for this horrendous murder must face full responsibility for it,” she said.

    “We certainly imagine that the Khashoggi murder will be an issue, which we discuss with many of the partners who we will be meeting with.”

    The kingdom is a member of the G20, and the Saudi-owned television station Al-Arabiya says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, will attend the summit.

    U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that bin Salman ordered the Oct. 2 killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

    “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in a written statement.

    “That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.”

    Regardless, Saudi Arabia remains a “steadfast” partner of the U.S. and has helped keep oil prices stable, Trump said. He also said he doesn’t want to jeopardize US$450 billion in Saudi investment in the U.S., including $110 billion to buy American-made military hardware.

    Trump said the U.S. has already sanctioned 17 Saudi individuals under its Magnitsky Act, and isn’t planning any further action.

    Freeland, meanwhile, has said Canada is contemplating similar sanctions, but she gave no indication why that has yet to happen or what is taking so long.

    A senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the deliberations, said any decision on sanctions will be made by federal cabinet, and will be part of a larger process that will see Canada working in co-ordination with its allies.

    The process includes a consideration of sanctions, a co-ordinated push for an international investigation and an assessment of the Turkish recording of Khashoggi’s death, the official said.

    Freeland has not heard the recording, but has been briefed on its contents by the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who travelled to Turkey to hear it, said the official.

    Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press



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    National

    Ride-hailing group says B.C. model looks a lot like expanded taxi industry

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  • VANCOUVER — A coalition of businesses and interest groups advocating for ride-hailing in British Columbia says legislation introduced yesterday will just create an expanded taxi industry, not the ride-hailing services that customers expect.

    Ian Tostenson of Ridesharing Now for BC says members are “bewildered” that the future of ride-hailing in the province remains uncertain and the government hasn’t committed to a start date for the service.

    Tostenson, who also represents the BC Restaurant and Food Services Association, says the coalition is especially concerned that the Passenger Transportation Board would have power to limit the number of drivers on the road, where they can drive, and also set rates.

    He says the organization was expecting to see legislation that more closely matched the customer-driven supply and demand model that exists in other jurisdictions.

    Tim Burr of ride-hailing company Lyft says the company sees legislation introduced Monday as a “procedural step forward” but the regulation and rule-making process will come next.

    He says the company is used to rolling up its sleeves to work with legislators and regulators in many jurisdictions and remains committed to working with the B.C. government to bring the service to the province.

    The Canadian Press


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