One of Florida’s newest residents faces the toughest test of his presidency Wednesday.
He’s hired Florida’s ex-attorney general for damage control and enlisted a close friend in Congress, a Florida man, to lead the counter attack. Two South Florida businessmen may hold information that can unlock the scandal. A former Florida cop is eagerly awaiting testimony, and a Florida investment banker could alter the narrative with his vote.
For just the fourth time in U.S. history, the House of Representatives this week will hold impeachment hearings — and Floridians are playing starring roles in the escalating political drama. In Congress, White House war rooms and court houses, these Florida men and women are now central figures in the investigation into President Donald Trump, himself a recent Florida transplant.
Here are the Floridians Trump has called on to help him, those who will decide his fate and a few shady figures from this sunny state who could contribute to his downfall.
Trump says his phone call with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect" and there was no “quid pro quo" in the face of mounting testimony suggesting otherwise. Chief of staff Mick Mulvaney tried to clear the air at a news conference last month and instead seemed to acknowledge an extortion — “We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he told reporters — before walking it back. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are offering an evolving defense of the president, with some recently conceding Trump’s actions crossed a line but weren’t impeachable.
The muddled messaging has led Trump to lash out against Republicans on Twitter. Meanwhile, polls show that the American public, once strongly opposed to impeachment, is warming up to the idea.
Enter Pam Bondi.
The former Florida attorney general is one of two new White House hires who will focus on messaging as the impeachment investigation moves into the public realm. One of the first high-profile Florida Republicans to publicly support Trump in 2016, Bondi is now putting aside her second career as a lobbyist to join Trump’s impeachment team.
Bondi, whose 2014 reelection campaign accepted a $25,000 check from Trump’s charitable foundation, was long-rumored for a role in the White House. In her new assignment, Bondi brings considerable legal and communication experience to the role from her days in Tallahassee and as a prosecutor and public face of the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office.
“The president is his best spokesperson," Bondi told Fox & Friends last week, "and this is just helping with a huge team and doing a lot of other special projects.”
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz
Trump’s top defender on Fox News has already demonstrated his flair for theatrics during the impeachment proceedings.
Three weeks ago, Gaetz led a Republican storming of the secure room where the House Intelligence Committee conducted closed-door impeachment hearings. The attempt failed — “Please, absent yourself,” Committee Chairman Adam Schiff instructed Gaetz — but the stunt nevertheless landed Gaetz all over cable news and affirmed the Panhandle Republican would have a leading part in the GOP rebuttal to the Democratic investigation.
The House Intelligence Committee began its first hearings Wednesday with the testimony of George Kent and William Taylor, two leading state department officials on Ukraine. Gaetz isn’t on the committee, but he does serve on the House Judiciary Committee, which may ultimately draft articles of impeachment.
“I’ll confess to a modest amount of FOMO (fear of missing out),” Gaetz told the Tampa Bay Times this week. “The judiciary committee should be holding these hearings but because the Republicans on the committee have whooped the Democrats’ butts, they’ve deprived us of that. Its frustrating.”
Unlike recent hearings, the upcoming testimony will take place in the open over the next week. Gaetz has been known to swing by committee hearings. He stopped by the House Oversight Committee in February to stare down Trump’s fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen as he testified on Capitol Hill.
“I may wander by. I don’t think they can kick me out during an open hearing,” Gaetz said. “I don’t expect Chariman Schiff to deliver an invitation under my office door.”
U.S. Rep. Val Demings
The Orlando Democrat is in a rare position. She is one of just three members of Congress tasked with investigating the president as a member of the Intelligence Committee and drafting possible articles of impeachment on the Judiciary Committee. It gives the former police chief a front-row seat to history and a consequential voice in what happens to Trump.
Demings was one of the first Democrats to push for impeachment proceedings after special counselor Robert Mueller unveiled the findings of his investigation into Russian election interference. As one of the few people granted access to the close door impeachment testimony of state department officials, her resolve has only strengthened, Demings said. It’s not just that he pressured a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent, she said, but the threat to withhold $400 million in military aid from Ukraine put a strategic ally at risk engaged in a conflict against a global adversary.
“It’s one thing to read a transcript that’s 300 pages, it’s another to see someone like (ambassador to Ukraine) William Taylor, who has been in public service for 50 years, a decorated veteran — it’s pretty powerful to hear testimony directly from him,” Demings said.
“The bottomline is clearly, the president of the United States has abused his power, has betrayed the oath of office and has jeopardized national security,” she told the Times this week. “The only unanswered question is what do we want to do about it as a Congress.”
U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney
Unlike most Republicans, Rooney has openly criticized Trump for his July 25 phone call with Ukraine and the motivations behind it. And mid-October, Rooney appeared open to impeachment.
“The issue of using the power and prestige of our country to bring pressure on a foreign government to deal with political activities, not American security interest activities, is bothersome to me,” the Naples Republican said in a NPR interview. “And it’s a big deal.”
Rooney, a former ambassador and investment banker, has since announced he will retire at the end of his term. And on Oct. 31 he sided with his GOP colleagues voting against formalizing the impeachment investigation.
But he didn’t shut the door on eventually voting to remove Trump from office, giving Democrats some hope it could add a bipartisan voice to their efforts.
“I have consistently kept an open mind and listened to the facts as presented,” Rooney said in a statement, “and will continue to do so.”
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman
The two South Florida businessmen with Ukrainian ties have become major figures in the drive to impeach Trump.
Parnas and Fruman, associates of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, were arrested last month on international campaign finance violations. Authorities allege they were involved in an operation to oust the ambassador to Ukraine, who was seen as a barrier to Giuliani’s efforts to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and other political conspiracies.
Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official whose testimony has been among the most damaging to Trump, said she was warned by colleagues that Parnas and Fruman were "notorious in Florida and that they were bad news.”
The two somehow rose the ranks of wealthy Republican donors in Palm Beach GOP circles. They donated $50,000 to the campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis and held a fundraiser with Donald Trump, Jr. The Times recently reported that Parnas and Fruman were VIPs at DeSantis’ inauguration.
Parnas and Fruman have pleaded not guilty.
Trump’s former political adviser and longtime confidant isn’t central to the ongoing impeachment investigation — yet.
Stone is on trial for lying to congressional investigators and witness tampering related to the Mueller investigation. He was arrested in January during an early-morning raid of his Fort Lauderdale home. Prosecutors allege he was a go-between for the Trump campaign and Wikileaks, the international organization credited with hacking Democratic National Committee emails.
The trial has shed new light on the Trump campaign’s dealings with Wikileaks Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates testified this week that Trump discussed WikiLeaks with Stone, which appeared to contradict what Trump told Mueller in a written statement.
“I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with him,” Trump wrote. “Nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.” Gates testified both those things happened.
Democrats so far have focused the impeachment investigation entirely on Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. However, Stone’s trial could produce new avenues to further probe the president’s actions in 2016.