PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — President Trump traveled to the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday for his first 2020 rally in the crucial swing state, where he delivered a wide-ranging speech and pledged nearly half a billion dollars to disaster relief efforts there.
The region — which was devastated in last year’s Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that wrought more than $25 billion in damage — is politically significant for Trump. North Florida voters helped propel his 2016 win over Hillary Clinton in the state.
More than 70 percent of voters in Bay County, where Trump held his rally, backed the president in 2016. Florida, with 29 electoral college votes, has been the nation’s largest swing state. Before his departure from the White House, Trump tweeted that he was “Getting ready to leave for one of my favorite places.”
Though the hurricane hit nearly seven months ago, the region is still reeling from a slow recovery. Local officials have called on the federal government to step up and provide more disaster relief funds after an aid bill stalled due to disagreement between Trump and Democrats over funding for Puerto Rico.
At the rally, which took place in a field next to an amphitheater, Trump announced he would allocate $448 million of Housing and Urban Development recovery money to the Florida relief effort.
Trump has also sought to blame Democrats for the lack of aid and has claimed Puerto Rico is undeserving of more federal funds to deal with the aftermath of devastating hurricanes in 2017.
To illustrate his point, Trump pulled a small bar chart out of his suit coat and held it up to the crowd. Puerto Rico, he said, has received more relief money than any other state or territory, falsely claiming that the federal government had provided Puerto Rico with $91 billion in aid.
“That’s Puerto Rico,” Trump said, pointing to the tallest bar. “And they don’t like me.”
Despite the conflict in Congress, Trump said, “we’re getting close” to a deal with Democrats.
Two Republican senators wrote to their colleagues this week, calling for swift action to approve the disaster funding.
In a May 6 letter, Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) urged a vote, saying “we can’t wait any longer” for relief.
“It’s been 208 days since Hurricane Michael devastated Florida’s Panhandle and Southwest Georgia and a disaster funding bill is still in limbo’” they wrote. “Fortunately, there’s been some movement in the last few days and we hope that both sides are ready to come to an agreement.”
Several local officials who spoke before Trump praised him for promising to provide funding for Florida disaster relief, while acknowledging that much of the money has yet to arrive.
“He’s already done a lot,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). “We’re asking for a little bit more.”
Before his rally, Trump went on a brief tour of Tyndall Air Force Base, which the storm hit particularly hard, leaving nearly every building damaged. On Wednesday, several buildings still had broken roofs and windows. Recovery work stopped last week due to lack of funds, the White House said, blaming Democrats.
The storm left the future of the base, which is a boon to the local economy, in doubt. At the rally, Trump said officials told him Tyndall may need to shut down, but he “made a phone call.” Now, the president promised, there will be “more people working at Tyndall than the day before the hurricane.”
Though some in the crowd wielded Trump 2020 signs, much of the rally resembled stops on his first campaign. Chants of “Build the wall” and “Lock her up” echoed through the warm May air, and Trump again quibbled about the size of crowds at his events.
Hundreds of people streamed out of the rally as Trump spoke, his remarks lasting for nearly an hour and a half.
Trump took swings at four of his potential Democratic opponents — all of them men — calling out former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., on whose name Trump lingered, repeating its phonetic spelling, “Boot-edge-edge.” Later, he observed that former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke was “folding like a rock.” Trump said he would “take any of ’em” in a general election bout.
But Trump also joked again about overstaying his term in office, which would be an unprecedented violation of the Constitution.
“See, there’ll be headlines tomorrow,” Trump said, predicting criticism of his provocative remarks. “ ‘See, he is a despot, he is a despot.’ ”
The president then sought to rationalize his aggressive trade policies when, just a day ago, his threat to increase tariffs on Chinese goods sent the stock market tumbling.
“They broke the deal, they broke the deal,” Trump said, adding that his administration would likely meet with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He to continue trade talks.
“They come in tomorrow and whatever happens, it’ll work out,” Trump said, waving his hand in a forget-about-it motion.
As the rally ended, fireworks erupted from behind the stage as speakers blared a Trump rally favorite: the Rolling Stones’ anthem “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Thebault reported from Washington.