The US government's disaster relief chief has defended Donald Trump's denial of the official death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, partially blaming the number of fatalities on spousal abuse.
The president claimed the 2,975 people found by a study to have died as a result of hurricanes in the US territory last year was a number invented by his opponents to discredit him.
"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," Mr Trump wrote on Twitter last week. "If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics."
On Sunday, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Brock Long – appointed by Mr Trump – also questioned the official death toll, and failed to refute the president's conspiracy theory.
"I think he's defensive because he knows how hard these guys behind me work day in and day out for a very complex situation," Mr Long told NBC's Meet the Press. "And he's frustrated – those studies, the Harvard study was done differently, then the George Washington study or this study or that study, and the numbers are all over the place."
Asked directly whether he agreed with Mr Trump the studies were done to make him look bad, Mr Long said: "I don't know why the studies were done."
He continued: "You might see more indirect deaths occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress, they fall off their house trying to fix their roof, they die in car crashes because they went through an intersection where the stop lights weren't working.
"The other thing that goes on – there's all kinds of studies on this that we can take a look at – spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can't blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anybody."
Independent researchers at George Washington University (GWU) estimated that 2,975 excess deaths were related to Maria in the six months following the hurricane.
Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosello, commissioned the study and accepted the death toll as the best available. He rejected the findings of a Harvard study that estimated more than 4,000 died, saying he found the GWU research with its lower number to be scientifically sound.
Both the local and federal governments have been heavily criticised for inadequate planning and post-storm response. The Puerto Rican electrical grid collapsed into the US's longest-ever blackout after Maria hit on 20 September 2017. Hundreds of deaths came long after the first weeks of the storm, as medical equipment failed and sick people weakened in the suffocating heat.
Mr Long's comments come amid claims he is fighting to keep his job after a federal investigation was launched into allegations he misused resources while traveling between Washington DC and his home in North Carolina.
The Wall Street Journal reported the White House considered replacing Mr Long before Hurricane Florence battered the FEMA chief's home state over the weekend.
Additional reporting by AP
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