WASHINGTON — With all attention on Hurricane Florence, Republicans are dealing with a separate, familiar kind of storm in the halls of Congress — one of the president’s own making.
As happens often, congressional Republicans were blindsided Thursday morning by a tweet, as President Donald Trump challenged without evidence the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from last year’s Hurricane Maria. He falsely claimed the number had been inflated by Democrats “in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
Democrats immediately had cutting words for the president, with various lawmakers calling his tweets “horrifying” and an attempt to “gaslight our nation.”
It wasn’t as simple for Republicans, who did all sorts of familiar dances — ones they’ve been doing since the presidential election — when responding to questions in the hallways of the Capitol. The day quickly became a case study in the tactics that Republicans use to avoid crossing Trump, who rarely forgets a slight.
One frequent tactic is claiming ignorance: “I haven’t read it yet,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Trump’s tweet as he walked away from reporters.
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah took a similar line.
“I can’t really comment because I don’t know anything about it,” Hatch said outside of a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting to consider Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. He declined to comment even after reporters described what Trump wrote.
Another frequent tactic for Republicans is stating that they have a policy of not commenting on Trump’s tweets.
“I don’t want to comment on what the president said,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who went on to ask why estimates of the dead had sharply increased over the last year. Grassley also told reporters that “I don’t know the president’s motivations on a lot of things unless I talk to him personally.”
Some blamed the media. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, defended the federal government’s efforts in Puerto Rico and said he didn’t have any detail on the numbers of the dead. When pressed on the tweets, Cornyn grew frustrated.
“I thought you all wanted to talk about the Kavanaugh nomination,” he said. “So if anybody has anything else they want to talk about?”
Some appeared to be working to calm the president down.
“Casualties don’t make a person look bad,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “So I have no reason to dispute those numbers.”
Ryan added: “This was a devastating storm that hit an isolated island and that’s really no one’s fault. That is just what happened.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a friend of Trump’s who talks to him often, said he thinks Trump “sees every attack on him as sort of undercutting his legitimacy. I don’t think it’s bad to say we could have done better in Puerto Rico.”
Graham also defended the president, saying he doesn’t think he’s indifferent to people who live on the island. He said he wants to find out more about what the numbers are, and thinks Congress should look into it.
The number of dead in Hurricane Maria was raised from 64 to 2,975 by Puerto Rico’s governor last month after an independent study assessed that there had been an undercount of people who had died in the aftermath. Previous reports from the Puerto Rican government said the number was closer to 1,400.
“I don’t know who picked the number 3,000,” Graham said. “I don’t know how they arrived at the information.”
A small number of Republicans seemed to side with the president.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is in a tough race for re-election this year, appeared to agree with Trump, saying there is “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.”
Rarest of all was direct criticism. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents South Florida and is retiring from Congress, took the lonely route of rebuking Trump. She called the comments part of Trump’s “theater of the absurd.”
“You can question maybe the methodology, that’s fine, but to cast doubt on an entire study because it doesn’t suit your political narrative and because you think hundreds of deaths are about you, that dishonors the living and the dead,” she said.
And as always, there were lawmakers who asked why the parties can’t get along. This time it was two Florida Republicans who, like Ros-Lehtinen, know something about hurricane recovery.
Sen. Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump for president, said that “even tragedy” is politicized these days.
“We all need to stop the blame game & focus on recovery, helping those still hurting & fixing the mistakes,” he tweeted.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo said both sides had politicized the Puerto Rico response.
“As usual, what we need more of is sobriety and seriousness here, and that seems to be lacking,” he said.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Kevin Freking and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.