Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Florida's Trump critics are all over cable TV, but paying a price

It can be lonely in the pint-sized world of vocal, Republican detractors of President Donald Trump.

Even elected Republicans in Washington and beyond who privately wring their hands over outrageous tweets, false statements, policy flip-flops and chaos emanating from Trump's White House overwhelmingly keep mum. Polls consistently show more than three of four Republicans approve of President Trump's performance, so that's the prudent move politically.

But flip around the cable news networks and you're likely to see a prominent Florida Republican ripping into President Trump.

Just as Florida has an outsized influence in picking presidents, so does it have a strikingly large footprint in the small circle of Republicans denouncing Trump's performance day after day on TV — and paying a personal and professional price for it.

"He does not listen to his attorneys, he does not listen to political advisers. Everything is shoot from the lip, everything is impulse, everything is whatever's in Donald Trump's brain that moment, he believes to be the smartest thing in the world. And so he saddled his own son with this terrible piece of convoluted and, frankly, deceptive rhetoric, that he forced him to put out," veteran Republican consultant Rick Wilson of Tallahassee told MSNBC's Chris Hayes on Tuesday night amid revelations that the president helped draft Donald Trump Jr.'s misleading initial statement about arranging a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign. "My rule is simple: Everything Trump touches dies."

Later that night, also on Democrat-leaning MSNBC, former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, talked to Lawrence O'Donnell about retired Marine Gen. John Kelly replacing ousted White House chief of staff Reince Priebus: "What we are seeing right now is frankly a very JV president who has no idea what he is doing inside the beltway. And he likes to cater to the base, but that's 35 percent."

The next morning, former Pensacola-area Rep. Joe Scarborough described Trump and his White House staff as chronic liars on his Morning Joe show, and that night Miami's Ana Navarro argued with Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord about the president's new plan to cut back legal immigration.

"Nobody does more identity politics than Donald Trump," Navarro said. "The guy who came down, announced he was running for president and called Mexicans rapists. Nobody does more identity politics than the guy who called for the Muslim ban. Nobody does more identity politics than the guy who tweets out against transgenders. So if you want there to be no identity politics … my request to you is to start by telling the president you support, regardless of what he does, to stop doing it himself."

Navarro and Scarborough are well compensated for their TV work, and Navarro's colorfully blunt takedowns of Trump during the 2016 campaign have made her a favorite on the lucrative speaker circuit. She commands at least $20,000 per speech.

Jolly and Wilson are not paid for their near-daily appearances on MSNBC and CNN, though national TV exposure in itself can be a heady reward.

Still, as lifelong members of a party that traditionally demands loyalty, they have paid a price.

• • •

Jolly, 44, is looking at running next year against U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, who unseated him in 2016, and said there is a "strong likelihood that I run." But he has infuriated many Republicans in the district with his constant Trump attacks on cable TV.

"I hear comments like, 'Has he lost it? We supported him a great deal with our time, our money and our efforts,' and they have written letters to him asking for their money back," said Pinellas Republican State Committeeman Dan Tucker.

Wilson, 53, who makes his living advising Republican clients and pro-Republican associations and political committees, says his high anti-Trump profile has cost him business. In a state where Gov. Rick Scott strongly supports the president, Wilson won't even seek out some clients because he know his anti-Trump profile makes him unattractive.

"It has been costly not to toe the line and to play nice," he said. "I know a lot of my competitors in this state right now, if they know I'm involved in a race, they want to pitch against me."

Veteran Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, another well-known "#NeverTrump" Republican in Tallahassee who regularly lambasts the president on Facebook and Twitter, can vouch for that.

"I had someone tell me just the other day they knew a candidate who really wanted to hire Rick but was afraid to," said Stipanovich.

A lobbyist who played a key role in electing Republican Florida Govs. Bob Martinez, Jeb Bush and Crist, Stipanovich said he has faced backlash, too.

"This has not been free for me. It has cost me friends, it has cost me money," Stipanovich said.

Navarro said she expects to lay low in directly helping anybody running in Republican primaries for the foreseeable future, including the race to succeed her congresswoman, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, in Miami.

"I fully recognize that I am probably toxic in a Republican primary right now," she said. "There are Republicans that I have been in the political trenches with for decades that don't speak to me any longer."

Six months into his presidency, Trump has the lowest approval ratings in the history of polling, with roughly 40 percent approving of his performance. But among Republicans, at least 75 percent consistently approve of the president's performance, which makes it risky for Republicans to butt heads with him.

"You and I know people who are extolling Donald Trump, thanking 'our great leader' today for this and 'our great leader' for that, who actually think he is a mouth-breathing idiot. The reason is they're afraid of primaries," Stipanovich said.

The leading Republican contenders for Florida governor in 2018 — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, both Jeb Bush supporters and Trump critics in 2016 — have become cheerleaders for the president.

"Aren't you tired of the liberals taking fake news to new extremes? I am," Putnam recently tweeted, urging people to "Sign the petition to stop CNN."

Corcoran, the Pasco County state representative who in 2016 called Trump a "repugnant," offensive and ignorant fraud, lately has nothing but praise for the president. Trump is governing as a "true conservative," Corcoran said recently.

There are cracks showing in Trump's wall of GOP support, but only cracks. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in 2018, has a new book denouncing Trump as no friend of small government conservatism. Other senators are dismissing the president's calls to continue trying to repeal and replace Obamacare.

But the Trump detractors are very much the exception.

• • •

Shrugging off tweets and the Russia investigation, many Republicans hail Trump's appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a decline in illegal border crossings and his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

Still others are what Jolly calls "party above all else" Republicans who think Republicans must stand by their Republican president and that anyone who does not is a RINO, or Republican In Name Only.

"It's almost comical to me to hear Republicans call folks like myself a RINO or not a true Republican when the reality is our party was hijacked by someone who's not a true Republican — and that's Donald Trump," said Jolly, who expects to help any GOP effort to nominate someone else in 2020. "I'm going to be a Republican long after Trump has decided he's not, and long after the Trump era is over."

He also expects that if he runs for office in 2018, he will face a primary challenge thanks to his Trump criticism.

Pinellas GOP Chairman Nick DiCeglie said Jolly is out of step with the base of his party in Pinellas, which is far more fed up with Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate than Trump.

"They are very supportive of our president, and they understand he's trying to drain the swamp," DiCeglie said. "Regardless of the tweets or the perceived chaos in the West Wing, the Republican base in Pinellas is very supportive of President Trump."

Unlike Scarborough, a Connecticut resident who said last month he was so fed up with Republicans standing by Trump that he was leaving the GOP to become an independent, Florida's ever-present Republican Trump loathers intend to stay with their party. They take the this-too-will-pass view.

A sizable chunk of the party has always been susceptible to fringe extremist candidates, said Stipanovich, but Trump happens to be the most successful of those candidates.

"This is the high water mark of post-World War II, right-wing crazy, but this is not unique in American history," he said. "Donald Trump is William Jennings Bryan, if Bryan spoke gibberish. He's Huey Long with bad hair, he's George Wallace with a jet."

Wilson clearly enjoys his appearances on television and his anti-Trump columns in the Washington Post and Daily Beast. But he said he has not seized this role to have fun or promote himself. Rather, he genuinely sees the president as dangerous to America and to conservatism.

"I'm making a longer bet that at some point American conservatives will realize they've been played by a con man, and he was a mentally unstable con man from the very beginning," said Wilson, who scoffs at fellow campaign consultants advising their clients to stand with the president.

"It really tells you about other people's integrity and their bravery," he said. "My conservative bona fides are more than intact, much more so than many of my colleagues. I can sleep at night."

Contact Adam Smith at [email protected] Follow @AdamSmithTimes.

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