Riffing and rollicking, a playful Donald Trump came to South Florida Monday morning and embraced the most Hispanic city in the state, talking up the economy, tax cuts and the country's efforts to punish repressive regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.
"You are spectacular people, hard-working people. I love you," Trump, appearing in Miami before Tuesday's deadline to file income taxes, told a raucous crowd of dozens at the Bucky Dent Park gymnasium in Hialeah. "We will go on to things that maybe our economy and country have never seen before. We have such tremendous potential."
Trump, whose biggest money-maker is his Doral resort, loves him some Miami. He came bearing gifts for a party eager to talk about the economy and tax cuts ahead of the looming mid-term elections, and stayed focused, not once mentioning former FBI director James Comey or Russia. "For the first time in 18 years wages are going up. Congratulations," Trump said. "Enjoy your money."
But how much do Miamians love them some Trump?
The crowd that greeted the president reciprocated and then some, showering Trump with praise and erupting when he likened the blue-collar community's work ethic to the values that founded the country. They roared when he slammed the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela and mentioned how "tough" his administration is on Cuba — which he pronounced "Q-Bah." They laughed at his one-liners.
"Are there any Hispanics in the room?" he joked. "I doubt it."
Trump's NAFTA-smacking, Democrat-whacking talk during a roundtable Monday with Cabinet members and local entrepreneurs was the kind of message Republicans are hoping to stress as they head into election season that has the minority party surging. Trump was accompanied by Irina Vilariño, owner of Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine, and Sunshine Gasoline Distributors' Maximo Alvarez, Cuban exiles who built small business empires from their new opportunities in the United States.
Alvarez, whose companies have contributed more than $800,000 to political campaigns over the last quarter-century, said the new tax law and reduced regulations have helped him hire dozens of new employees and improve his business model. He said Republicans are fighting for hard-working Americans.
"I happen to be in the petroleum industry and, of course, we're supposed to be bad people because we damage the environment," said Alvarez, . "It was this president who allowed the construction of the Keystone Pipeline, which will then, believe it or not, allow cheaper oil, cheaper fuel to all of us."
But is Trump — an unpopular president whose histrionics have energized Democratic voters and helped the minority party nationalize competitive local races — the best spokesman for the job? Mario Diaz-Balart, the Republican congressman representing Hialeah, welcomed the president to his backyard.
"The president has the bully pulpit. And it's clear wherever he goes he's followed by legions of reporters. So I think he's a good messenger," said Diaz-Balart, who participated in the round-table along with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. "The growth is going to continue. The economy is going to continue to do well."
Diaz-Balart, however, doesn't face a credible threat from the Democratic party right now. And the left sought to use Trump's visit to Hialeah to knock around Gov. Rick Scott and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, two Republicans who face tough campaigns and were not in attendance Monday.
"The Trump-Scott-Curbelo agenda is increasing health care costs for Floridians, jeopardizing Floridians from getting the coverage they need and making life more expensive for middle class families," state party director Juan Penalosa said in a statement. "Scott and Curbelo can hide today, but Floridians will hold these two accountable for running from the truth and putting themselves ahead of Floridians."
Scott, a surrogate for Trump during his presidential campaign who is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson, was in Naples and then headed out of state Monday attending previously scheduled events, according to a spokesman for his U.S. Senate campaign. Curbelo, likely headed for a difficult reelection campaign in a district that chose Hillary Clinton by 16 points over Trump two years ago, said through a spokeswoman that his travels back to South Florida from a previously scheduled summit in Peru kept him from the event.
Jose Mallea, a co-owner of a Doral brewery and former political consultant for Marco Rubio's 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, said talk of Trump's toxicity is overblown and thought the president's visit to Hialeah was a boost for the party. He said Democrats can't tie viable candidates and incumbents like Curbelo to Trump's unpopularity because they have their own platforms.
"Good policy is good politics. If the tax bill does what it's intended to do, which is grow business... then that's going to be hugely successful come election season," Mallea said. "If [Trump] delivers on his promise then there will be success."
Trump, who brought National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta with him to South Florida, veered a little from the traditional talking points on taxes, touting a provision in the bill that allows oil exploration in a portion of Alaska’s North Slope, which was panned by Curbelo and Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. But mostly he was focused, knocking NAFTA as "the worst deal ever made in the history of trade," and pledging to try to crack down on a trade deficit with the Chinese government. He touted the unemployment rate, promised to grow the economy — and made sure everyone in the audience knew who was on team Trump when it came time to cut taxes.
"We didn’t get one Democrat to vote for it and Senator Nelson was hostile to it," he said, throwing in a jab for Scott. "They want to raise your taxes and we can’t let that happen. This country is starting to rock."
Miami Herald reporters Alex Daugherty and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.