GAINESVILLE, Fla. — An appearance by Donald Trump Jr. on the University of Florida campus Thursday night, billed as a “keynote presentation” and covered by student funds, drew protests by students objecting to what they called a campaign rally.
In a critical swing state where Democrats and Republicans would like to capture the college-age vote, the event drew more attention than the usual campus speaker does. Hundreds of protesters had gathered more than an hour before the speeches.
“The $50K nothing burger,” one protest sign read, with “Whopper Junior” written on its back side.
As Trump and Guilfoyle spoke, touching on the usual campaign talking points such as immigration and low unemployment, a small but vocal group of protesters shouted “Bull----, bull----.” Guilfoyle responded: “I bet your parents are so proud of you.” She was soon supported by a larger pro-Trump crowd with cries of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
The speeches come as congressional committees in Washington are holding an impeachment investigation over President Trump’s request to Ukrainian officials to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter, who once sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump, in his speech, referenced the Bidens. “What would happen if Donald Trump Jr. sat on a board of a corrupt Ukrainian company? Do you think the media would have a problem with that?”
Protesters responded by yelling “Lock him up! Lock him up!,” meaning Trump Jr., forcing him to pause the speech. This was followed by chants of “U.S.A.!” When they died down, Trump said, “I agree, they should probably lock up Joe.”
Trump and Guilfoyle, who spoke for 24 minutes each, took a few handpicked questions submitted on Twitter: “What’s one thing most people don’t know about your father?” “His sense of humor,” Trump said.
The usual format for these speaker events is that the mic is passed around so audience members can ask questions. A student government member said that because of the controversial nature of the speakers, they decided to do it differently.
The event, which had the atmosphere of a Trump campaign rally, ended with competing chants of “Four more years” and “Lock him up!”
Protesters outside continued the shouting as the Trump motorcade went by.
The event announcement had touted Trump as “an innovator and leader in today’s young business world” and Guilfoyle as a “sought after national speaker.” Guilfoyle is an attorney and former Fox News host.
Despite the pair’s high profile in the Trump campaign, the students responsible for bringing them to campus said the visit was not about politics. “This event is a campus speaking engagement, not a campaign event,” said Henry Fair, who is in charge of the ACCENT Speakers Bureau.
Tickets to the 843-seat auditorium were distributed without charge to students and claimed within hours.
Bobby Mermer, co-president of Graduate Assistants United at UF, said many students felt they were being forced to support the couple’s appearance. “These are well-known campaign surrogates traveling the country for a political candidate,” he said.
Mermer said he wouldn’t object if Trump and Guilfoyle spoke on campus without payment, as candidates have in the past. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential contender, addressed an outdoor campaign rally on the campus in 2016 that was attended by 8,000. He was not paid.
“We would be opposed to the ACCENT bureau using student fees to fund any candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, it doesn’t matter,” Mermer said. “Have the campaigns or private funds pay for it, not mandatory student fees.”
In an email, Fair noted that ACCENT had made a similar speech request of Sanders’s campaign. “Unfortunately, Senator Sanders declined.”
The speakers bureau is part of the university’s Student Government Association, which independently oversees a budget of more than $21 million. The money comes from a fee of $19.06 per hour course credit that students are required to pay. The university has an enrollment of 52,000.
Student government president Michael Murphy, who approved allocating funds for the Trump speech, is the son of Republican lobbyist Dan Murphy. The elder Murphy works for the Washington firm BGR Group and has donated to President Trump’s reelection campaign.
Michael Murphy posted photos of himself at Trump’s inauguration, and the White House invited him to attend a Rose Garden ceremony in March when the president signed an executive order dealing with free speech on campus.
Two years ago, white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke on the university’s campus — though not as an invited ACCESS speaker. He had first been denied access to campus by the administration and threatened to sue.
Spencer was not paid for his speech, but security around the event cost the university more than $500,000.
Trump and Guilfoyle spoke at Penn State this year, but that was part of the Campus Clash tour run by the conservative group Turning Point USA.
Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, said it’s no surprise the Trump campaign is hitting campuses.
“College-age students were really jazzed up for the 2018 election,” Thomas said, and in the midterm elections, voter turnout in that age group rose 21 percent. “I think you’ll see an even bigger jump . . . in the presidential election. The momentum is very strong.”
ACCENT has brought hundreds of speakers to campus since the 1970s, usually without much controversy. Last year’s October speaker, rapper Pitbull, was paid $130,000. lympic gymnast Aly Raisman was paid $56,000 the following month.
Students opposed to Thursday’s speech say hosting Trump and Guilfoyle was part of a larger effort.
“It’s a pretty detailed strategy to pick the bluest area in North Florida and bring him here,” said Emily Hyden, a 20-year-old junior majoring in international studies. “They knew it would get a lot of attention.”
Hyden and a group of student activists started a #ChompTrump movement after the event was announced.
“Political interests are clearly being valued above students,” Hyden said. “This is all about pleasing the donors.”