Revelations that Donald Trump's hotel and casino company secretly spent money trying to do business in Cuba in violation of the U.S. trade embargo roiled Miami politics Thursday, forcing top Cuban-American Republicans to express concern about Trump's dealings while maintaining that the allegation isn't reason enough to disavow the presidential nominee yet.
Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts paid at least $68,000 to a consulting firm in late 1998 in an attempt to give Trump's business a head start in Cuba if the U.S. loosened or lifted trade sanctions, according to a front-page Newsweek report titled "The Castro Connection." The consulting firm, Seven Arrows Investment and Development Corp., later instructed the casino company to make the spending appear legal by saying it was for charity.
Trump's most prominent local Cuban-American supporter, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, called the report "troubling."
"The article makes some very serious and troubling allegations," he said in a campaign statement. "I will reserve judgment until we know all the facts and Donald has been given the opportunity to respond."
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, who has espoused a strong pro-embargo position throughout his political career, struck a similar tone, saying for now he gives Trump the benefit of the doubt.
"What we have so far are unnamed sources," he cautioned reporters, calling the Newsweek report "preliminary." "It's important to see what the facts are."
Trump rejected Newsweek's reporting in an interview broadcast Thursday night.
"I never did business in Cuba. There's this guy who has very bad reputation as a reporter. You see what his record is, he wrote something about me in Cuba," Trump told New Hampshire's NH1 station, according to Politico. "No, I never did anything in Cuba. I never did a deal in Cuba."
Hillary Clinton pounced on the story, saying it exposed a "pattern" of obfuscation by Trump on his business dealings. Clinton is scheduled to visit Coral Springs on Friday, with polls showing her and Trump essentially tied in Florida, the nation's largest swing state.
"We already know about his tax returns that he refuses to release, but today we learned about his efforts to do business in Cuba, which appear to violate U.S. law — certainly flout American foreign policy," Clinton told reporters.
"He has consistently misled people in responding to questions about whether he was attempting to do business in Cuba. So this adds to the long list of actions and statements that raise doubts about his temperament and qualification to be president and commander in chief, and also really continue to stonewall the American voters who deserve to know this information before they cast their votes."
Clinton gave a speech at Florida International University last year advocating that the U.S. lift the embargo, a stance that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago coming from a major party nominee campaigning in the nation's largest swing state.
Trump, on the other hand, has hardened his Cuba position recently, proclaiming at a Miami rally that he would reverse President Barack Obama's re-engagement policy toward the island's communist regime. A hand-picked group of largely Cuban-American Hispanics met Trump in Little Havana on Tuesday with gushing praise.
Last year, Trump had sounded far less vexed by Obama's Cuba proposal — even though in a November 1999 speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami he cast himself as a pro-embargo hardliner who refused to do potentially lucrative business on the island until Fidel Castro was gone.
"If the embargo is not continued, then the Bay of Pigs and all the people who died or were injured and those who are living monuments of it will be hurt by this government a second time," Trump said then. The crowd regaled him with cries of "Viva Trump!"
At the time, Trump was flirting with running as a Reform Party presidential candidate. President Bill Clinton was loosening U.S. sanctions against Cuba.
"CANF did not have, and until this day does not have, any knowledge concerning the alleged plans by the Trump organization to circumvent the restrictions of the US Embargo," the foundation said in a statement Thursday.
Trump's 1999 speech took place less than a year after Trump's company hired the Seven Arrows consultancy to explore business opportunities in Cuba, according to Newsweek. Trump had turned to the same firm to try to develop a Florida casino with the Seminole Tribe.
Neither Trump nor Richard Fields, the head of Seven Arrows consulting, responded to Newsweek's requests for comment. Trump later sued Fields, and former Trump adviser Roger Stone suggested to Politico Florida late Wednesday that Fields might have acted on his own, without Trump's approval, in looking into a possible Cuba venture. Newsweek, however, cited an anonymous former Trump executive who claimed "Trump had participated in discussions about the Cuba trip and knew it had taken place."
When Seven Arrows billed Trump's company to reimburse its Cuba work, according to Newsweek, it suggested using "Carinas Cuba" as charitable cover to get an after-the-fact Cuba license from the U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control. OFAC doesn't issue licenses after companies have already gone to Cuba, and the Catholic charity is actually named Caritas Cuba.
Newsweek wasn't the first news outlet to question Trump's commitment to staying away from Cuba. Bloomberg Businessweek reported in July that Trump Organization executives traveled to Havana in late 2012 or early 2013 to scout potential golf-course sites — again under a White House that favored closer Cuba ties. Politico Florida reported Thursday that John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said someone from the Trump organization approached him in the mid to late 1990s about doing business in Cuba.
Unlike other Hispanics, Cuban Americans lean heavily for the GOP: They make up about 72 percent of registered Republicans in Miami-Dade County. However, a recent Florida International University poll showed potential political trouble for Trump: Miami-Dade Cubans only narrowly backed him over Clinton. The same poll showed a majority of local Cuban Americans for the first time clearly favor lifting the embargo.
Engage Cuba, which lobbies for lifting the embargo and other U.S. sanctions, suggested Thursday that Trump should return to viewing Cuba as he did in 1998.
"Clearly Mr. Trump, a businessman, has long recognized the economic benefits of engaging with Cuba," communications director Madeleine Russak said in a statement. "No business in the world, including a Trump company, would continue to pursue a strategy that has failed for 55 years, and I would imagine that Mr. Trump would expect nothing less from the U.S. government.
"It's unfortunate that the presidential nominee has changed his tune in regards to Cuba, seemingly to pander to an outdated perception of Cuban-American sentiment in South Florida."
The Newsweek report reverberated in Florida beyond the presidential race. Gov. Rick Scott said he hasn't read the story and declined to opine on it, calling it a distraction fueled by Clinton supporters.
"I've not talked to Trump about it," he told reporters in Orlando. "I assume this is more of what Hillary Clinton keeps doing."
Rubio's Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, accused the incumbent of failing to stand up for his principles.
"Marco Rubio can't even stand up to Donald Trump when he violates a Cuba policy that Rubio has made a focal point of his political career," Murphy communications director Joshua Karp said in a statement. "Marco Rubio should disavow Trump or admit that there really isn't an issue that matters to him more than his own personal political ambition."
Reporters swarmed Diaz-Balart early Thursday afternoon at Miami International Airport, where he and two other lawmakers held a news conference to tout newly approved congressional funds to fight the Zika virus. Diaz-Balart, who has said he plans to vote for "the Republican nominee," urged Trump to answer the questions raised by Newsweek, but said he needs more evidence to conclude Trump violated the embargo.
"Doing business in Cuba is illegal, absolutely," Diaz-Balart conceded. But he also credited Trump with blasting Castro and promoting the embargo in 1999. The timing of that Miami speech, so soon after the Trump's Cuba foray as reported by Newsweek, didn't strike Diaz-Balart as political double-speak but rather as an indication that Trump decided to steer clear of Cuba despite facing business pressure to do otherwise.
Two other Miami Republicans in Congress, Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have refused to back Trump. Curbelo told the Miami Herald on Thursday that Trump "should explain what happened in 1998."
"No one is above the law," he said, though Newsweek reported that the statute of limitations against any action against Trump has expired.
Ros-Lehtinen was unavailable for comment because she was en route to Israel for the late President Shimon Peres' funeral.
In Washington, Mauricio Claver-Carone, who heads the staunchly pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, argued Trump "never transacted business with the Castro regime" because Trump's money went to the consulting firm. Claver-Carone cited a June 25, 1999, Trump op-ed in the Miami Herald as proof that Trump had reconsidered trying find a way to enter the Cuba market.
"Several large European investment groups have asked me to take the 'Trump Magic' to Cuba," Trump wrote. "They have 'begged' me to form partnerships to build casino-hotels in Havana. With the influx of foreign tourists, we would make a fortune, they promise, and they are no doubt right. They are also right to say that this type of arrangement would allow me to skirt the U.S.-imposed embargo.
"But rushing to join those who would do business in Cuba would do more than that," Trump continued. "It would place me directly at odds with the longstanding U.S. policy of isolating Fidel Castro. I had a choice to make: huge profits or human rights. For me it was a no-brainer."
"Perhaps he deserves some kudos for this," Claver-Carone posited.
On Miami's popular Spanish-language radio stations, listeners apparently backing Trump also found contorted ways to try to justify Trump's actions.
"Everybody's done business in Cuba," one WAQI-AM 710 Radio Mambí listener said, sounding defensive.
"Yes," host Bernadette Pardo replied, "but here it's illegal."
Miami Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.