TAMPA — President Donald Trump found a way to bring back his rallies.
As a Lee Greenwood patriotic anthem blasted over the speakers, Trump on Friday stepped off Air Force One and into a stifling July afternoon, where a crowd of several hundred supporters waited for him on the Tampa tarmac.
There were few masks in sight, but plenty of MAGA hats.
Trump wasted no time, diving right into a 30-minute set list of campaign rhetoric, the kind he normally reserves for arenas. The audience — those who stayed, at least; about one-third sought shelter from the merciless sun — heard Trump paint a dark picture of America that would be overrun by terrorists, gangs and China if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected in November. He boasted of the new missiles, new rockets and the souped up police departments that he said had been built during his tenure.
Standing behind him were 14 sheriffs and deputies from around the state. (It was 15 before one ducked out in a wobbly daze with the help of secret service.) Earlier in the day, Trump received an endorsement from the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the state’s largest police union.
“As long as I’m president, I will never defund your police,” Trump said.
Trump arrived in Tampa Bay at an especially perilous moment. More people are dying from the coronavirus in Florida than at any point during the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians are out of work, and additional federal unemployment benefits are expiring. And as if the nightmare could not get worse, a hurricane is barreling toward the state’s east coast.
“You’ve seen worse,” Trump said of Hurricane Isaias. “You’ve seen some beauties.”
Still, by 3:30 p.m., there were signs he’s still got the backing of his base. Local police and sheriffs cars and thousands of people lined the roads leading from Tampa International Airport to the Pelican Golf Club in Belleair. Some roads closest to the venue were blocked, turning cars away. Only event attendees were able to access the streets closed to the golf club. Because some residential roads were blocked, resident with proof of an address within the perimeter were allowed through.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott joined Trump on Air Force One. Trump was greeted at the bottom of the stairs by incoming state Sen. President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, state Rep. Danny Perez, R-Miami, and Danny Burgess, a local state senate candidate and former director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Later, Trump discussed the coronavirus pandemic and the looming storm threat with Gov. Ron DeSantis, Simpson, Perez and Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters at the Pelican Golf Club in Belleair. Trump insisted to the group that a vaccine is coming soon, while Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told lawmakers earlier in the day he was “cautiously optimistic” one could be developed by late fall or early winter.
Media was then ushered out of the room so Trump could hold a private fundraiser, where guests paid at least $5,600 to get in the door.
“I like his polices and Joe Biden hasn’t said anything that would make me change my opinion,” Peters told the Tampa Bay Times earlier in the day. “I’m a conservative Republican, so yes, I support him.”
Trump had planned to travel to South Florida, too, for a Saturday event at his Trump National Doral Miami golf resort. But according to a Republican National Committee spokesman, the event was canceled this weekend because Tropical Storm Isaias is approaching Southeast Florida and the GOP did not want to take resources away from the area.
The postponement of another Sunshine State event was the latest setback for Trump in Florida, a state he narrowly won in 2016 but where polls consistently show the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, is ahead in the race. Trump last week called off the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville due to a surge in coronavirus cases in the state.
Trump spent much of 2016 campaigning in the voter-rich stretch of Florida between Pinellas County and Orlando known as the Interstate-4 corridor. It’s an area that once again promises to be a key battleground inside this swing state. Trump launched his reelection bid from an Orlando arena last year; Biden helped kicked off his general election campaign with a virtual event “in” Tampa and he already has a television presence in the local media market thanks to an early advertising blitz.
It’s Trump’s 45th visit to the state since taking office, according to CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller, though the president had hoped to return to the Tampa Bay area sooner and in a much larger way. At the onset of the pandemic, Trump’s campaign had planned a Tampa rally that he ultimately nixed because “I don’t want people dying,” he told reporters in the Oval Office on March 12.
“We need a little separation until such time as it goes away,” Trump said then. “It’s going to go away.”
Four months later, the virus is still here and the situation is much worse. Nearly 7,000 people have died in Florida since Trump made that remark, and on Friday the state reported 257 new deaths, breaking the previous high set Thursday.
Trump predicted to his Tampa crowd that the coronavirus would subside in 90 days, and at that time he could hug and kiss police officers again. Past predictions like that have not come to pass.
Democrats alleged Trump was putting his campaign ahead of Floridians by holding a fundraiser in the middle of a coronavirus hot spot just as a hurricane was bearing down on the state.
“It’s very, very sad that Donald Trump is coming to Florida for a fundraiser, rather than coming to figure out what we can do about this virus,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa.
An invitation to Friday’s fundraiser at the Pelican Golf Club obtained by the Tampa Bay Times showed donors could attend for $5,600. Two tickets and a photo could be had for $35,000. For $100,000, they could attend a roundtable discussion with the president.
The invitation did not list local hosts or sponsors of the event.
More than 300 hundred supporters of Trump gathered outside the fences of Tampa International Airport to watch Air Force One land. They wore Make America Great Again hats and sought cover from the blistering July mid-day sun under a few scattered trees before they were let onto the tarmac to greet the president.
It was the closet thing to a Trump rally the area has seen in a while — and may not see again.
As President Trump’s motorcade stopped normal traffic and approached the line of supporters along East Bay Drive in Largo, cheers grew louder. The crowd cheered “USA! USA!” His supporters caught a quick glimpse of the president through the window as his vehicle — nestled in the middle of the motorcade — passed. Trump smiled from inside the car as he watched the crowd wave American flags and Trump 2020 flags.
As soon as the motorcade passed, the crowd cleared.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Tracey McManus, Miami Herald reporter David Smiley and McClatchy reporter Francesca Chambers contributed to this report.