At another time, under a different president, Republican Rep. Francis Rooney’s words might have seemed innocuous, banal to the point of irrelevance.
But this is 2019, the president is Trump and in the country clubs and gated communities of Rooney’s ruby-red district along southwest Florida’s shimmering Gulf Coast, the comments provoked a collective howl.
Republican Facebook pages lit up with indignation that Rooney had failed to denounce the impeachment inquiry as “a witch hunt.” Party activists traded outraged texts. Some took their case directly to the congressman, protesting what they saw as an act of supreme disloyalty to a leader they say they have come to revere more than any in their lifetimes.
“I told him, ‘You’ve betrayed your country, your president and your constituents,’ ” said Doris Cortese, 80, the vice chair of the Lee County Republican Executive Committee, recounting a conversation with Rooney.
“My exact words to him were: ‘Get out.’ ”
Within hours, the longtime Republican insider had, announcing on Fox News his decision not to run again after two terms.
The dramatic late-October sequence traced a now-familiar arc of Trump’s presidency. Republicans who dare to step out of line get pummeled for their trouble. Rather than inspire imitators, they become object lessons — a warning to others of the dangers of disobedience. The dynamic helps explain why every GOP House member — Rooney included — voted Thursday against opening an impeachment inquiry, even as Democrats voted nearly unanimously in favor.
Rooney’s toe-dip into the whirlpool of subversion had, for a brief while, appeared like it could be different, at least when viewed from Washington.
Polls show that support for impeachment among Democratic and independent voters is rising as the facts documenting a presidential abuse of power pile up. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have grown increasingly agitated with the White House on a range of issues, from Middle East policy to Trump’s choice of venues for the Group of 7 summit.
Might Rooney be a pioneer crack in a dam on the verge of bursting?
But seen from here in southwest Florida — the heart of Trump country in a state he will need to win next year to hold the White House — the president’s base is not cracking. It’s growing stronger. By outing himself as a less-than-reliable ally, Republican activists say, Rooney did the party a service as it attempts to weed out all who might waver.
“If he’s not going to vote with the president,” Cortese said, “we can get someone who will.”
Rooney said in an interview that he decided to retire because he accomplished what he wanted to in Washington and that his announcement was unrelated to his comments on impeachment, which had come just a day earlier. He also said he believed he could have run and won again.
But he acknowledged that the outcry about his remarks had been loud and that many Republican primary voters in his affluent southwest Florida district would not tolerate any daylight between their congressman and the president.
“If there’s going to be a vote, I want to know all the facts,” Rooney said. “There are a lot of people down there who don’t like that.”
Trump’s famous boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing voters, Rooney said, certainly applied in some quarters of a district the president had carried by 22 points.
“Nobody would ever say that about George W. Bush or Bush 41 or Obama or Clinton or even the sainted Ronald Reagan,” said Rooney, 65, a wealthy businessman whose family-owned construction firm built presidential libraries for the Bushes. “This is a unique phenomenon that we’re facing here.”
And is that sort of devotion good for the country?
“I think it’s better when people think,” he said.
National polls bear out the idea that Republicans are sticking with the president. A Washington Post average of surveys since mid-October finds that more than 8 in 10 Democrats and nearly half of all independents favor impeachment. Both figures have jumped substantially in the past month, as the picture of Trump’s Ukraine dealings becomes more complete.
But the Republican figure remains low, with just about 1 in 10 GOP voters backing the process.
Trump voters on Florida’s Gulf Coast said they were unbothered by testimony from administration officials indicating that the president had used the powers of his office to pressure a foreign government to dig up dirt on a political rival. But they were incensed by the way they said that Democrats were pursuing Trump’s possible removal from office, including by hearing testimony in closed session.
“It’s not correct, it’s not constitutional, it’s unprecedented and it’s probably illegal,” said Marty Wisher, a 54-year-old artist and avid Republican volunteer.
Sitting at Lee County GOP headquarters — in a strip mall wedged among golf and tennis clubs — Wisher sported a necklace with the word “Trump” emblazoned in sparkly sequins, along with a bracelet to match.
She wakes in the morning to the thrill of her gold-cased phone buzzing as the president tweets. There is almost nothing that she wouldn’t do for him — including helping him make good on his signature promise with her own hands.
“If he asks for volunteers, well, I guess I’m going to go learn how to build a wall,” she said.
It wasn’t always obvious that Trump could inspire such devotion here. A haven for retirees and families seeking a quieter and sunnier lifestyle than the one on offer in cities up north, the coastal region that includes Fort Myers, Naples, Sanibel Island and Cape Coral has long been defined by an appetite for low taxes and fiscal conservatism.
During the Obama years, the tea party took off here, with the ballooning federal deficit becoming a rallying cry against the Democratic president.
In the 2016 primary, voters here seemed to initially favor favorite sons Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Jonathan Martin, chair of the Lee County GOP, backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Trump seemed to be an afterthought — at least at first.
“We were hesitant,” Martin said. “He was a New York City Democrat until recently. There was a lot of uncertainty.”
No more. The deficit might still be galloping ever higher, but Trump’s backers hardly seem to mind.
The president’s attacks on the media, undocumented immigrants and U.S. allies that he accuses of not paying their share all play well here. His appointment of conservative judges earns him plaudits from church pulpits. And the local economy, which already had been strengthening under President Barack Obama following a sharp downturn when the housing bubble burst, has never been better.
“I consider him to be our David against Goliath,” said Nancy Price, a 73-year-old retiree who spends much of her free time volunteering for Republican campaigns. “He’s doing such a phenomenal job, and look what he has to fight every day.”
That’s why Republicans — whether or not they’re Trump fans — say the Ukraine investigation is unlikely to make much of an impact here, no matter where the facts ultimately lead.
“It won’t move the dial,” said Chauncey Goss, the son of a former Republican congressman. He has run for the seat twice and also chairs a state board.
To say otherwise “is wishful thinking,” he said.
When Rooney spoke up, many here were perplexed by why he would take such a risk.
“My first thought was, ‘Why is he going against the president without all the facts? Does he know something we don’t?’ ” said Cecil Pendergrass, a Lee County commissioner.
Rooney did have access to information others do not — at least not yet. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he sat in on hours of testimony from former ambassadors and White House officials. Trump has denounced them as nefarious emissaries of the “Deep State.” Rooney, who had been a Capitol Hill staffer during Watergate, said their testimony was troubling and credible.
Though Rooney insisted he had not yet seen evidence of behavior that merited impeachment, he wanted to have all the facts before making a call on “the most important vote I’ll cast.”
That was heresy to many Republican activists. Rooney already had upset them by breaking with the president on funding for Trump’s border wall. They had campaigned for both men, but there was no question who they would support if they had to choose.
“Rooney turned on us. Trump is staying with us,” Wisher said. “That’s the difference.”
Wisher said she would not make the same mistake again and has plans to personally question would-be successors about how closely they will hew to Trump’s agenda.
Analysts predict the contest to replace Rooney next year ultimately will come down to who can show the greatest fealty to the president.
“They’ll all be trying to outdo each other,” said Peter Bergerson, a political scientist at Florida Gulf Coast University. “It will be the Ivory soap test. You’ve got to be 99.99 percent pure. At least.”