TAMPA – With impeachment now underway in the U.S. Senate, Vice President Mike Pence took his boss’ defense on the road Thursday to battleground Florida and the critical Interstate-4 corridor.
Pence assured the hundreds of Republicans gathered in New Tampa that he expected the GOP-led Senate would soon dispose of the impeachment articles against President Donald Trump.
“Come November the American people are going to have our say," Pence told a crowd of about 500 people inside St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church’s event center.
Whereas the president is known to seize the mic for 90 minutes of riffing, rambling and red meat, Pence delivered a much more concise, scripted pitch for a second term.
Pence laid out the case that Trump will attempt to make to Florida voters over the coming 10 months. “America is safer” and “the economy is booming,” Pence said. He often spoke of the importance Floridians will have in deciding the next commander-in-chief.
Four years ago, many voters backed Trump because of his opposition to longstanding U.S. trade policies. But on Thursday, Pence signaled the campaign would run on a pro-trade platform. He touted a recent, partial pact with China and the Senate ratification of a new North America trade deal as momentous progress.
After outlining the administration’s investments in space travel, including in Florida, Pence declared: “United States Space Force has arrived.”
Pence was met by an enthusiastic crowd steeled against criticism of the president and already in campaign mode. One of those supporters, retired Winter Haven resident Robert Brooks, said Trump just needs to “keep doing what he’s doing.”
“He’s accomplished a huge amount," Brooks, 75 said. “The judges, the wall, he has eliminated a number of (President Barack) Obama’s regulations, which certainly has helped the economy.”
Outside, many protesters said the Trump administration hasn’t delivered for them. Others were upset that the St. Petersburg Catholic Diocese would allow a campaign event on church property. Joseph Bugelli, 91, who attends St. Mark, said he asked his church why it consented to the event, but didn’t get an explanation.
“It’s shameful,” said Kristin Hoffman, 41, of Tampa. "I’m ashamed that (the church) would rent their morals to this campaign.”
The rally in New Tampa coincided with the start of the Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. The House delivered two articles of impeachment to the Senate on Wednesday, accusing the president of abuse of power by withholding military aid to the Ukraine for political favors and obstructing justice by blocking witnesses from testifying in the House impeachment proceedings.
One potential witness, Ukranian-American businessman Lev Parnas, implicated Pence in the administration’s attempt to coerce Ukraine into investigating Burisma, a natural gas company that counted former Vice President Joe Biden’s son as a board member. Parnas, a close associate of Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, told CNN last night that Pence skipped the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president as part of that pressure campaign.
Inside the “Keep America Great” rally, Parnas’ bombshell interview barely registered. Pence made no mention of the allegations.
Parnas, arrested in October, has Florida ties. He lived in South Florida and became involved in Republican Party politics there. Last year, he donated $50,000 to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign and was a VIP at DeSantis’ inauguration.
For the president’s diehard supporters on Thursday, the impeachment proceedings were simply partisan noise. They shouted “Impeach Pelosi” and “Impeach Schiff," referencing the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff.
Others saw the impeachment as an opportunity for vindication.
“I feel at this point that the truth will come out. It’s all in God’s hands and he’s in control of it," Doreen O’Toole, 70, of Wesley Chapel. "We just pray for him that the truth will come out.”
Pence arrived at Tampa International Airport shortly after noon and was greeted on the tarmac by DeSantis, Republican Party of Florida chairman Joe Gruters and a class from Land O’Lakes Christian Middle School, according to reporters in the vice president’s pool. He traveled with former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, now working for the White House impeachment response team.
Pence told the rally crowd that he also spoke with the family of fallen Lakeland Police Office Paul Dunn, who died in a motorcycle crash Jan. 9. Before the event, Pence stopped at the iconic West Tampa Sandwich Shop, according to reporters in the vice president’s pool.
“I’ve got a Cuban sandwich waiting for me,” Pence said just before exiting the stage.
Thursday’s rally was originally scheduled for a gated community in Wimauma but a rift between residents forced the Trump campaign to move the event to 36 miles north.
From Tampa, Pence is traveling west along the Interstate-4 corridor to a rally in Kissimmee geared toward Latinos. Democrats are planning a counter protest there and put up a billboard with a picture of Trump tossing paper towels at Puerto Rico hurricane victims. “Never forget," the billboard says.
Times staff writer Martha Asencio Rhine contributed to this report.