WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump took a Friday swing through Florida, a state critical to his reelection prospects and bracketed by two storms — one now bringing daily records on COVID-19 deaths and the other swirling just to the south in the form of Hurricane Isaias.
Trump delivered a campaign speech with Florida sheriffs that continued his effort to pin a surge in crime in some of the nation’s largest cities on their Democratic mayors as he has threatened to send federal law enforcement to protect what he describes as besieged communities.
Speaking soon after a federal appeals court threw out Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death sentence for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing because of potential juror bias, Trump attacked Democratic rival Joe Biden for his shifting position on capital punishment. The former vice president, who supported the death penalty through much of his long political career, last year called for eliminating the death penalty on the federal level and incentivizing states to do the same.
“They protect criminals and Biden opposes the death penalty, even for cop killers and child murderers," Trump told hundreds of supporters who showed up to hear him speak at the sheriffs' event on the Tampa International Airport tarmac. “I see in Boston, where you have the animal that killed so many people during the Boston Marathon, they just sent this conviction for the death penalty back to the lower courts. ... It’s ridiculous.”
With the White House and Democrats at loggerheads over a new round of financial relief to bolster a coronavirus-battered economy, Trump is attempting to use a “law-and-order” theme to electrify his base and win over undecided voters unsettled by more than two months of protests centered on police brutality and racial injustice.
Before departing Washington, Trump again falsely claimed that Biden supports defunding the police.
He met at the White House with members of the National Association of Police Organizations Leadership, an organization that endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but is backing Trump's reelection bid.
“Your choice is me or somebody that has no clue what they’re doing," Trump told them.
In Florida, Trump also participated in a meeting to review the response to COVID-19 and the state’s preparedness for Hurricane Isaias, which was centered in the Bahamas on Friday and expected to move near South Florida on Saturday.
“It’s a pretty big storm," said Trump, who asked Floridians to be cautious. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a hurricane or not, but it’s a storm. It’s significant."
The president addressed a range of issues at the event about the hurricane and the pandemic, even touching on his promised health care plan. Florida reported 257 new coronavirus deaths on Friday, the highest daily count so far and the fourth record day in a row.
As a candidate for the White House, Trump promised that he would “immediately” replace President Barack Obama’s health care law with a plan of his own that would provide “insurance for everybody," but he has yet to reveal his plan. Trump said during an exchange with reporters that he was preparing to unveil his plan “soon," suggesting perhaps as early as Sunday. The president, however, has previously suggested a forthcoming replacement plan without delivering.
Trump also spoke to supporters at a fundraiser that was closed to reporters before heading back to Washington on Friday evening.
Florida is considered essential for the president’s reelection prospects. He won the state with a 1.2% margin in 2016, but most polls have shown him trailing Biden.
Asked if the rising COVID-19 death toll could diminish his chances in the state, Trump told reporters that he had confidence in his adopted home state. He noted the large crowd of supporters who stood along his motorcade route during his visit Friday and unspecified polls as evidence of his position.
“There’s a very good feeling," Trump insisted.
Democratic supporters of Biden in Florida criticized Trump for coming to the state to fundraise during such a critical time for the state and nation. Nowhere does the pandemic threaten Trump’s political future more than Florida, where Democrats have been railing against the Republican president’s inability to control the health threat in a state packed with older people.
“We have more cases than some countries. This is outrageous, and here he is, Donald Trump, visiting Florida to raise money and pretending like it doesn’t even exist, that we don't have a problem, with an impending storm coming our way to top it all off,” said Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami, a Biden supporter. “As if 2020 couldn’t get any worse for Floridians.”
Democrats working to defeat Trump are on one hand giddy about the president’s weak standing in multiple public polls but on the other are predicting the race will tighten significantly before Election Day.
While Trump may be struggling three months before the election, his campaign points to its organizational advantages and suggests that the pandemic outlook is improving. Trump has already reserved $36 million in fall advertising in Florida alone, which is by far his largest advertising investment in any general election battleground state.
Nick Trainer, the campaign’s director of battleground strategy, predicted that the coronavirus situation would ultimately become an asset for Trump’s reelection.
“President Trump’s leadership on coronavirus has put us in a strong position to protect vulnerable Americans and rebuild our economy,” he said. “Where we’re at today isn’t where we’ll be in November.”
Madhani reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington and Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.