GAINESVILLE — The political winds that have darkened the nation’s discourse swept through the University of Florida’s normally placid campus this week with a visit by Donald Trump Jr. that stirred passions from all directions.
The president’s son was joined by former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, his girlfriend, who serves as an adviser for Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. And though the UF campus has seen controversial speakers before, students, university officials and police say this appearance seemed different.
The Thursday night visit was much smaller than when white nationalist Richard Spencer paid to rent space at UF and speak to students in 2017, but some observers, including those supporting Trump, drew parallels between the events. Both were big and divisive, forcing the university to pull out all the stops with security.
Six law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service were present, according to UF spokesman Steve Orlando. Officers, squad cars and police barricades dotted areas surrounding University Auditorium, where the pair spoke to about 800 people.
A bomb-sniffing dog checked media members as they entered the building while officers surveilled from atop Turlington Hall, which houses classrooms across the street. Below, protesters circled the auditorium carrying signs and chanting insults directed at the Trump family.
“Ur dad sucks,” one sign said. Some called for the president’s impeachment, while others labeled him a liar, racist and sexual predator. Trump supporters stood nearby wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats and waving flags bearing the president’s name.
Many expressed outrage that, unlike with Spencer, the $50,000 paid to the speakers came from student activity fees collected by UF along with tuition. That money is then distributed to student government groups, including ACCENT, which organizes guest speakers.
The group’s chairman, Henry Fair, has declined multiple times to answer questions from the Tampa Bay Times and other media outlets about how Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle were selected to speak at UF. But protesters say students were never consulted.
“It sends the message that student government doesn’t care about the student body and what they want,” said graduate student Maxine Donnelly, 25, noting that the event was “carried out through the bureaucracy of UF.”
A contract between the speakers and ACCENT limited journalists to photograph and record no more than 10 minutes of the hour-long event, despite different instructions from the university. Members of ACCENT tried to enforce the rule, threatening to remove reporters from the venue when they lifted their phones and cameras.
Because Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle accepted public funds, they were barred from campaigning for President Trump. But they edged up to that line, praising his policies and ideology, and urging students in the nation’s largest swing state to turn away from a “socialist” Democratic Party.
Emily Hyden, who organized the protest outside, said Friday that the event “felt like a campaign stop” and violated campaign laws by promoting President Trump using public funds.
She said she is working to find an attorney willing to challenge the content of the speeches so UF can recoup the money paid to Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle.
At the same time, comments by the speakers were “ridiculously offensive and completely insensitive,” said Hayden, 20. “It’s the rhetoric that is echoed time and time again through Trump events, and I don’t think it brought any intellectual value to the University of Florida.”
Guilfoyle opened by asking attendees if they were “hot” for her. Trump Jr. joked later about the movement against sexual violence after the couple leaned in for a kiss on stage.
Guilfoyle, who spoke about her childhood as a first-generation American raised by a single father, praised President Trump for “doing so much for the country,” like lowering unemployment rates for minority groups.
“He has the balls to stand up for what’s right,” she said, adding that there is a “little mini Dustbuster, like, testicular vacuum” that prevents other politicians from doing the same.
Trump Jr. talked about the first time he visited his grandfather in communist Czechoslovakia at age 6. An airport guard made him take off a jacket decorated with a design similar to the American flag, he said.
“For me, it was a jean jacket, but to them it represented America,” he said. “They made me take it off. I was told I wasn't allowed to wear that into the country. Imagine a place where you would do that to a 6-year-old.”
Protesters in the audience erupted, booing and yelling insults for their seats as Trump Jr. continued, praising his father’s administration for improving the U.S. economy.
“There is not a single economic metric where we are not better off today than you were three years ago,” he yelled. “Not one.”
Jarrod Rodriguez, a political science major who serves as the treasurer of UF’s College Republicans group, sat near the front of the stage. If the talk felt like a rally, he said, it was because the speakers had to “combat the protesters that were incessantly trying to shut them out.”
His group criticized the university in a statement Friday that said officials didn’t do enough to stop protesters from disrupting the event: “The refusal of university officials to address protesters’ continuous attempts to silence speakers only serves as a bitter reminder of the bias the university administration has against conservative speech.”
There were no major incidents or ejections at the event, according to UF. Police arrested one person, 36-year-old Richard Winslow Tate, for taking another man’s “Make America Great Again” hat outside the auditorium.
Protesters expressed disappointment with UF administration, too, for not stopping Trump Jr.’s visit altogether. But state law prevents college officials from interfering with student government expenditures once the overall budget is approved.
Rodriguez, 20, said it’s wrong of protesters to say the event involved campaigning for President Trump’s reelection because, he argued, there was no “call to action” to vote for him in 2020.
“Are we going to consider it a campaign event whenever a conservative wants to talk about how good we’re doing as a nation right now?” he asked. “Is that considered campaigning? Where do you draw the line?”
Even if it wasn’t considered campaigning, the event came at a cost to UF, said Hyden, the protest organizer. Though it’s important for students to be exposed to a diverse lines of thought, she added, Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle brought an unhealthy dose of division to campus.
“It was a waste of our time, a waste of our energy, a waste of our stress and a waste of our money,” she said. “And taking that divisiveness and dropping it right in the heart of our campus is disheartening."