By Sean Sullivan and Lori Rozsa,
West Palm Beach, Fla. — President Trump’s vulgar comments disparaging Haiti, El Salvador and African countries reverberated across the country Friday — including one immigrant-rich state central to the GOP’s political fortunes where the party was already facing head winds: Florida.
Trump’s reference to “shithole countries” in an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers Thursday sent Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a close ally the president is courting to run for the U.S. Senate, scrambling to distance himself from the controversy. Republican lawmakers issued strongly worded statements condemning what the leader of their party said. And GOP strategists and activists worried about the fallout in a battleground that is home to one of the country’s largest populations of Latin Americans.
Trump’s presidential victory hinged heavily on his surprise win in Florida, which Republicans are trying to build on in this year’s midterm elections. But the drag of Trump’s polarizing actions and words can be felt acutely in some quarters of this state, where marquee elections for a Senate seat and the governorship will play out this year, and which is expected to be as pivotal in the 2020 presidential contest as it was in 2016.
“It’s not helping,” said Michael Barnett, the vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party said of Trump’s remarks. Barnett, an African American attorney in Palm Beach County who is close to the Haitian community there, added, “As far as making our job harder, we’ve been through a lot already with him.”
Some Florida Republicans quickly condemned the president’s remarks. Sen. Marco Rubio issued a series of tweets Friday praising Haitian Americans for their contributions to the country. Hours before that started, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who is running for reelection in a battleground South Florida district, tweeted, “Under no circumstances is it acceptable to degrade, denigrate, or dehumanize” immigrants who are in the United States under what is known as temporary protected status.
The president’s Oval Office insult, during a discussion about negotiations over immigration policy, followed months of other behavior that has threatened to undercut Republicans in Florida.
After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, Trump told local officials they should feel “very proud” they hadn’t lost hundreds of lives like in “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina. Later, he gave the federal response “a 10,” even as the island territory was struggling to recover.
In 2016, Florida was home to nearly 1.1 million Puerto Ricans, second only to New York. By one estimate after last year’s storm, at least 100,000 Puerto Ricans were expected to relocate to Florida, at least on a temporary basis.
More recently, the Trump administration announced plans to expand oil-drilling in most waters of the U.S. continental shelf, a move opposed by governors from New Jersey to Florida. A few days later, officials announced an exemption for Florida — an apparent recognition of the political peril of the expansion in a crucial state, but a move that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) called a “political stunt.” The White House declined to say whether Trump was personally involved in the decision to exempt Florida, where the president owns Mar-a-Lago, an oceanfront club in Palm Beach.
On Friday, Florida Democrats remained focused on Trump’s “shithole” remark.
“People are listening carefully to what the president is saying, and they’re internalizing the racism, xenophobia and hatred he is spreading,” said Lauren Baer, a Democrat who is running for Congress in Florida’s 18th District. “I think that will effect what they do in the ballot box.”
In a written statement Thursday, Scott repudiated Trump’s coarse remark.
“If this report is true, it is absolutely wrong to say or think this. I do not think this way, nor do I agree with this kind of sentiment. I represent Florida, and we are an amazing melting pot where over 250 languages are spoken,” the Republican governor said. “I work every day to make this the most welcoming state for everyone — Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, and others from all around the world that call Florida home.”
According to a 2010 census publication, of the estimated 830,000 people in the United States in 2009 with Haitian ancestry, about two-thirds lived in Florida, with around 376,000, and New York, with 191,000.
The president’s remarks came at a moment of frustration during an Oval Office meeting Thursday as Republican and Democratic lawmakers presented an opening bid for a broad immigration package.
The deal included a solution for “dreamers,” young immigrants brought to this country illegally as children, as well as improvements to border security and changes to two other elements of the immigration system: one allowing U.S. citizens to sponsor certain relatives for citizenship, and the other, known as the “diversity visa lottery,” that distributes 50,000 visas annually to nations with low rates of migration to the United States.
Trump became angry during a conversation about the visa lottery program, which benefits some African countries, and about the temporary protected status afforded to immigrants from certain nations, including El Salvador and Haiti.
“Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump said, according to several people briefed on the meeting. “Take them out.”
Trump has aggressively courted Scott to run for the Senate, but those who know him are mixed about how likely he is to take the plunge. One associate said the governor is continuing to gear up for a likely campaign and plans to host a least a pair of fundraisers for his political operation this month.
If Scott runs against Nelson, his personal fortune and name recognition across the state would, at a minimum, likely force Democrats to invest millions in Florida they could otherwise spend elsewhere.
At a maximum, Scott could compete seriously for a seat that could help Republicans keep their narrow Senate majority, which stands at 51 to 49.
As Scott decides whether to run, having Trump in his corner on the campaign trail is an increasingly dubious prospect. An October University of North Florida poll of registered voters found 37 percent approved of Trump, while 59 percent disapproved.
Scott was seen much more positively, with 59 percent approving of his job performance. Both this survey and another one showed Nelson and Scott were just about even in a head-to-head matchup for Senate.
Barnett, who helped arrange a meeting with Trump and the Haitian community in South Florida during the campaign and was on the tarmac with six Haitian pastors when Trump flew into Palm Beach International Airport last month, said the Trump he met would not speak the way he did at the private meeting this week.
But Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard, a Democrat who was born in Haiti, said he believes Trump used the word “shithole” — and that he meant it.
“His comments were disgraceful, vile and repugnant,” said Bernard, who moved to Florida when he was 10. Bernard said if Florida Republicans aren’t quick to denounce Trump’s comments, they’ll face a backlash in the midterm elections.
Trump won Florida and its 29 electoral votes by just 1.3 percentage points. If Democrats flip that outcome in 2020 and hold everything else Hillary Clinton won in 2016, the party would need only nine more electoral votes to regain the presidency.
Scott is term-limited, triggering an open race for the governorship that nonpartisan analysts have rated as a toss-up. The field includes Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a Trump ally.
Some influential Republicans defended the president, insisting the firestorm was overblown.
“I think when you have hard negotiations on immigration, there’s going to be pushing and shoving,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist who raised money for Trump’s campaign. “I think at the end of the day, what product comes out of those negotiations is key.”
Others sought to sidestep the controversy in an effort to remain focused on producing an immigration deal alongside a spending bill that must pass by midnight on Jan. 19 to keep the federal government open.
“I’m not going to be diverted from all possible efforts to continue to negotiate to reach a deal. So statements at the 11th hour are not going to distract me,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a participant in Thursday’s Oval Office meeting, said in a statement.
Sullivan reported from Washington. Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.