Trump rally proceeds despite Florida tragedy

By Annie Karni

Former President Donald Trump held a Fourth of July-themed rally Saturday night in Sarasota, Florida, across the state from where a tragedy has been unfolding for more than a week as firefighters, search dogs and emergency crews search for survivors in the collapse of a residential building just north of Miami Beach.

The political rally in the midst of a disaster that has horrified the nation became a topic of discussion among aides to the former president and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Trump ally whose growing popularity with the former president’s supporters is becoming an increasing source of tension for both men, according to people familiar with their thinking.

After officials from the governor’s office surveyed the scene of the condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida, Adrian Lukis, chief of staff to the governor, called Michael Glassner, a longtime Trump aide who is overseeing the Florida event, according to people familiar with the discussion. In a brief conversation, Lukis inquired whether the former president planned to continue with the event given the scale of the tragedy, two people said.

He was told there were no plans to reschedule.

A spokesperson for Trump, Liz Harrington, said that the rally in Sarasota was “3 1/2 hours away, approximately the same distance from Boston to New York, and will not impact any of the recovery efforts.”

She added that the former president “has instructed his team to collect relief aid for Surfside families both online and on-site at the Sarasota rally.”

After a brief moment of silence for the victims and families of the tragedy as he took the stage, Trump quickly launched into a castigation of cancel culture and of the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

He dismissed charges filed this week against his business, the Trump Organization, by the Manhattan district attorney’s office as “prosecutorial misconduct.” And while he appeared to deny knowledge of any possible tax evasion on benefits, he also seemed to acknowledge that those benefits occurred.

“You didn’t pay tax on the car, or the company apartment,” he said, adding, “Or education for your grandchildren. I don’t even know, do you have to put, does anyone know the answer to that stuff?”

Much of what followed was a familiar list of his grievances, but he drew an enthusiastic crowd that waited for hours in pouring rain to hear him speak.

DeSantis, who met Thursday with President Joe Biden when the president visited the site of the disaster, originally wanted to attend the rally but ultimately decided he could not go, aides said.

“He spoke with President Trump, who agreed that it was the right decision, because the governor’s duty is to be in Surfside,” his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said, adding, “Gov. DeSantis would have gone to the rally in normal circumstances.”

In an interview with Newsmax before the rally, Trump said he told DeSantis not to come. But during the rally, when he thanked local Republican leaders in Florida, he notably did not mention DeSantis.

The governor, an early supporter of Trump, has been eager to play down any perceived tension with the former president, who endorsed his campaign for governor in 2018 and could cause him a political headache if he turned against him.

“Gov. DeSantis is focusing on his duties as governor and the tragedy in Surfside and has never suggested or requested that events planned in different parts of Florida — from the Stanley Cup Finals to President Trump’s rally — should be canceled,” Pushaw said after the Washington Examiner reported that DeSantis had pointedly asked Trump to delay his rally.

The recent conversation between Lukis and Glassner was not the first time DeSantis’ staff had expressed reservations about the timing of Trump’s event. Before the condominium collapse, DeSantis’ office had suggested to the Trump team that the fall was better timing for a rally, given the perils of hurricane season in Florida, two people familiar with the conversation said.

Trump ignored the suggestion. Shut out of Facebook and Twitter, Trump has been eager for an outlet to have his voice heard and has been chomping at the bit to return to the rally stage, aides said.

DeSantis is seen as a top-tier Republican presidential candidate for 2024, and may end up in a political collision with the former president, who has hinted that he is considering another try for the White House.

People close to Trump said he had become mildly suspicious of a supposed ally. He has grilled multiple advisers and friends, asking “what’s Ron doing,” after hearing rumors at Mar-a-Lago that DeSantis had been courting donors for a potential presidential run of his own. He has asked aides their opinion of a Western Conservative Summit presidential straw poll for 2024 Republican presidential candidates, an unscientific online poll that showed DeSantis beating Trump.

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