THE VILLAGES — In the midst of a newly launched impeachment inquiry that threatens to completely transform the dynamics of the 2020 election, President Donald Trump on Thursday returned to Florida, a state he needs to win.
Recent days have caused him to dig in deeper. Shortly before he arrived in Florida on Thursday, he told reporters in Washington that China should also help investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, setting off another round of outrage.
At the afternoon event in The Villages, billed as an official White House visit, Trump made a few passing references to the investigations, but otherwise stuck mostly to the agenda, a speech on health care issues and Medicare. He strayed a bit for riffs on illegal immigration and the tyranny of ‘socialist’ proposals by Democrats.
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But he couldn’t resist taking swipes at the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. He said it was the result of “pure corruption," adding that the motivations are based purely on the 2020 election: “That’s why (Democrats) do the impeachment crap because they know they can never beat us fairly.”
At one point, he encouraged the crowd to chant “Eight more years” to troll Democrats.
The deep red and ever-growing retirement community in Central Florida was an ideal place for Trump to take a break from the Washington drama. He was officially at The Villages for a signing ceremony of an executive order which he promised would expand choices in Medicare and slash needless regulations so doctors “can spend less time on paperwork and more time on the patients that they love.”
Despite the Democratic presidential candidates’ differing proposals on health care, Trump warned that they are all the same in that they would "totally obliterate Medicare.”
“They want to raid Medicare to fund a thing called socialism,” he said.
Trump heaped praise on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a longtime political ally who’s doing a “phenomenal job," he said. The governor and his wife, Casey DeSantis, were in attendance along with Attorney General Ashley Moody, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, and U.S. Reps. Ross Spano, Gus Bilirakis, Neal Dunn and Michael Waltz.
Florida is, essentially, Trump’s second home. The Villages, a retirement hub of 125,000 residents north of Orlando, is a microcosm of one of the state’s most reliable voting demographics: Republican seniors.
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Many Villages attendees welcomed the long-awaited visit — which was rescheduled after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio commanded the nation’s attention in August.
His supporters, most of whom rely on Medicare, celebrated the executive order, expressing fears that some of the Democratic candidates’ “Medicare-for-All” proposals will make their health care more expensive.
“The Democrats are self-imploding,” said Suzanne Days, the Sumter County chapter president of “Trump Team 2020,” a group formed by people who felt the official state GOP wasn’t pro-Trump enough.
“Many of us are on fixed incomes and so if the price of Medicare goes up or the cost of our medicines go up,” their health would be adversely affected, she said, adding: “If they were going to try to do (Medicare-for-All) for anybody it should be our own people, not people who are coming across the border.”
For the seniors of the Villages — minimum age 55 —the cost of doctor’s visits and prescription drugs is more pertinent than what they claim is a baseless impeachment inquiry launched by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that’s motivated by naked political retribution.
“Three words: impeachment for what?” said James Harbison, a Villages resident sporting a Trump hat who waited outside for hours in the sweltering humidity to get a good seat at the event. “The president’s been investigated since before he got into office ... let him do his job.”
Still the issue of impeachment has captured the national consciousness, as Trump could be the first American president in history to be impeached while running for re-election.
In the true spirit of the moment’s ever-churning and breathless news cycle, Pelosi also visited Florida on Thursday, speaking with Venezuelan and Haitian community leaders in the Miami area.
The event required an invitation to get inside, making it a more subdued affair than his campaign rallies, where he often lands on site aboard Air Force One while Twisted Sister songs blare on speakers over the shouts of thousands of fans.
At least one large screen was erected at one of The Villages’ many town squares, which give off a newly-constructed-yet-retro brand of pastel cheer and boast a cleanliness that rivals Disney World.
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Still, Trump couldn’t have picked a better locale, for him, to address Medicare. The Villages are split between three counties, Sumter, Marion, and Lake, all of which saw Trump dominate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, beating her by 25 to 40 percentage points, despite the fact that he won Florida by less than two percentage points overall.
Put another way, Trump’s victory margin over Clinton in these three counties was 115,000, or just above what his total victory in Florida hinged upon, which was 113,000 votes — and people here like to say they were the key to Trump’s victory in Florida, as well as DeSantis’ ticket to the governor’s mansion in 2018. Plus, because of the age of this community, nearly everyone is on Medicare.
Even before the event began, both the Trump Administration and the opposition were trying to spread their warring messages about the administration's approach to Medicare.
Alex Azar, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the Times/Herald in a phone interview Wednesday that the Administration has prioritized health care with a special eye toward seniors. (Trump’s campaign promise to not make any cuts to Medicare, was rated by PolitiFact as a “Compromise” after his presidential budget proposed reductions in spending that would mostly affect providers and not Medicare recipients.)
Meanwhile, Priorities Florida, a progressive political committee, announced that residents in The Villages would be seeing digital ads on their Facebook pages and YouTube searches that accused Trump of making cuts to Medicare to provide tax breaks to billionaires (PolitiFact rated a similar ad campaign by the group’s parent organization Mostly False).
Among the MAGA-hat wearing Trump fans and the speakers in the Villages square which broadcast Fox News, a small contingent of Democratic residents staged a protest, complete with a miniature “Trump baby” mylar balloon, resting on a woman’s walker. They blew whistles and wore shirts that read, “Hate has no place here.” During the speech itself, that protest grew to about 40 people and devolved into shoves and insults between the anti-Trumpers and a few of his supporters.
One protester, Dee Melvin, said she wasn’t politically active until after the 2016 election. She’s now running for the local state House seat, a longshot bid for a seat that hasn’t gone blue in decades.
Melvin said she was unsure at first if Democrats should impeach Trump, worried it could backfire for 2020, but once the details of the Ukrainian call began to emerge, she decided: “It’s time.”
"He's selling our country away to the highest bidder," she said.
But Trump never got close to the protests. Instead, he relished the warm embrace of his many fans at The Villages. He shared with the crowd his meeting of a man outside who had “my name tattooed on his leg.”
“Among all the negativity that surrounds him from many different kinds of people — from Antifa to the radical Democrats — he still gets things done,” said Becky Lampinen before his speech. “I don’t think there’s any man I’ve ever known that could do that, other than God.”
Interestingly, despite the bitterness between Trump and Pelosi, on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that top Democratic aides and top White House and Trump administration officials met for a briefing on a Democratic bill that aims to lower prescription drug prices. And at a Wednesday news conference, Pelosi said she would still like to work with Trump in this area.
But on Twitter, Trump dismissed the idea of cooperation with a tweet, one in a days-long tweet storm that has warned of Civil War and suggested the House Intelligence Committee Chairman could be “arrested for treason.”
“Nancy Pelosi just said that she is interested in lowering prescription drug prices & working on the desperately needed USMCA,” he wrote, the latter a reference to a trade deal with Mexico and Canada. “She is incapable of working on either. It is just camouflage for trying to win an election through impeachment.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.