President Trump hands Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) a signed directive after he announced policy changes toward Cuba at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami on Friday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Just before President Trump’s speech here Friday announcing a more restrictive economic policy toward Cuba, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took the stage for a man he once labeled a “con artist” — and talked about how good it felt to hang out with him.

Trump returned the kind words a few minutes later. And when he signed the directive, which had been sought by Rubio, he handed the first pen to the man he once dismissed as “Little Marco.”

It was a striking show of solidarity between two men who last year had been fierce presidential rivals — who had upbraided each other in deeply personal terms during one of the ugliest stretches of the Republican primary.

Neither made reference to the insults they once lobbed at each other, which has defined their public relationship for more than two years.

But associates say the relationship has improved significantly in recent months. The timing of the thaw, however, has provoked accusations that the president is trying to ingratiate himself with a key member of a congressional panel investigating potential ties between Trump associates and Russia.

(Reuters)

In a statement, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a champion of more-open relations with Cuba, said “it should be obvious to everyone that this is a political favor from President Trump to a few influential Members of Congress who have never set foot in Cuba and who represent a tiny minority of the American people.”

Rubio and Trump allies dismissed that notion. And some Democrats said they see no evidence that such a tactic is working with Rubio.

Rubio’s allies believe he has struck a difficult balance that many GOP lawmakers have sought during Trump’s presidency but few have actually achieved. On some issues, the senator from Florida has remained openly critical of Trump. On others, including Cuba policy, he has found a way to partner with the president to pursue his own priorities.

“He seems to have found a sweet spot, or maybe I should call it ‘the art of dealing with Trump,’ ” Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and friend of Rubio, wrote in an email. “He works with Trump on what he can, issues like Venezuela and Cuba, that Marco and our community cares about enormously. But he still manages at times — distances himself from Trump and criticizes Trump when he goes off the rails.”

Rubio, who is the son of Cuban immigrants, took to social media Friday to tout his collaboration with Trump on the new Cuba policy, which takes aim at President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize relations with the country.

“The cooperation, the hard work, the commitment that this White House and that President Trump has shown to this cause I believe has no precedent,” Rubio said of Trump as he helped introduce him here.

Rubio described flying down from Washington with the president and told an audience filled with fellow Cuban Americans how cool it was to ride in a motorcade with police lights.

Trump called Rubio “a friend of mine” and “one tough competitor.” After Trump gave Rubio his pen, he handed him the order itself, prompting a wide grin from the senator.

White House officials said Rubio was a central figure in crafting the new policy. But some observers saw the collaboration as more than two Republicans working on a policy shift for which both have advocated.

Last week, Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago penned an item headlined “Did Rubio trade the integrity of U.S. for a Cuba-policy shift from Trump?” It argued that Rubio appeared to be “acting as Trump’s defense attorney” during his questioning of former FBI director James B. Comey at a closely watched Senate Intelligence Committee hearing this month.

Rubio suggested strongly during the hearing that Comey could have made it known that Trump himself was not under investigation, no matter how he felt about the propriety of their other interactions.

Several lawmakers saw those remarks as an aberration from his normally apolitical approach to allegations surrounding the president, his surrogates and potential Russia ties. And Rubio, who had dinner with Trump the week of Comey’s hearing, told reporters that if Trump had tried to influence or ask him questions about his role in the Intelligence Committee’s investigations, “we would have gotten up and walked out.”

Marc Short, Trump’s legislative director, noted that Trump’s announcement on Friday tracked with policy he had pushed during the campaign.

“We’d be foolish not to get the counsel of people who are experts in this area,” Short said, speaking broadly not only of the Cuba issue but any policy matter of interest to lawmakers.

Senate Democrats are not terribly concerned about the possibility that Trump is trying to sway Rubio to go softer on him in the Russia probe, according to several aides. Rubio has long been openly skeptical of the Russian government, and these aides did not predict that would change.

“When the president is under investigation, it’s a good time to cash in chips,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.

While Trump “should be trying to make as many friends as possible in Washington right now,” Naftali added, he’d be more suspicious “if this were an entirely new policy.”

As one of Trump chief rivals during the campaign, Rubio spent many months trying to avoid engaging with the businessman, calculating that his appeal would eventually wane.

It didn’t. And Rubio was forced to shift strategy, abruptly going hard after Trump in a debate in Texas and the days that followed — even lobbing anatomical insults at him.

The strategy failed, and Rubio’s campaign ended with a humiliating defeat in his home-state primary. But since then, relations have improved between the two men.

A key moment arrived when Rubio and Trump met at the White House in February. It was Rubio’s idea to bring Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo López, a prominent Venezuelan political prisoner, Rubio associates said. After the meeting, Trump called on Venezuela to release López.

Allies of Rubio, who is fresh off reelection, say they believe he may have a second presidential run in him down the road. After a donor call he did earlier this week, there was chatter among some about whether he might be interested in running again, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

At the same time, Rubio’s allies say he feels liberated because for the first time in years, he is not gearing up for or running a national campaign. Now he is focused on delivering on issues that matter to him and his state. The Cuba directive, for which he took heavy criticism for not advocating strongly enough when he ran for president, is a good example.

In Rubio, Trump allies say, the president sees someone he can and should work with professionally and get along with personally.

“But for the political strain of the race for president, they would be friends in any normal basis,” said Brian Ballard, a top GOP fundraiser and mutual associate of Trump and Rubio. He added: “I think the president respects him. I think the president likes him.”

Still, there are cracks in the relationship. Rubio voiced skepticism about now-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation process, although he ultimately supported him. More recently, Rubio critiqued Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia on CNN, saying he would be a more forceful critic of countries with poor human rights records.

But Rubio also has found ways to work with Trump and his team. He has collaborated with Ivanka Trump on the issue of paid family leave.

As he helped introduce Trump here Friday on a podium bearing the presidential seal, Rubio spoke in a volume and cadence reminiscent of the speeches he delivered as a candidate for president.

This time, the race had been long settled. And instead of attacking Trump, Rubio seemed almost in awe of being around him.

“They had the best M&Ms on the planet,” Rubio said of Air Force One.

Sullivan and Demirjian reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.