In Hurricane-Ravaged And Aid-Deprived Florida, Trump’s Supporters Remain Loyal

The deadly Hurricane Michael upended residents' lives, but they're not blaming the president for the long delay in federal aid.
Supporters of President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Panama City Beach, Florida, on May 8, 2019.
Supporters of President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Panama City Beach, Florida, on May 8, 2019.

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Ron and Florence Schaffhauser stood in matching orange “I SURVIVED HURRICANE MICHAEL” T-shirts, waiting for the MAGA rally to begin, a Doppler radar image of the deadly storm emblazoned on their chests.

Last October, the behemoth Category 5 hurricane had churned towards this beautiful stretch of white-sand beaches on the Florida panhandle, eventually killing 59 Americans and causing $25 billion in damage.

“We lost the roof ... the living room, dining room, kitchen,” said Ron Schaffhauser, a retired Marine, holding Florence’s hand as the couple recounted their ordeal to HuffPost.

“Our daughter’s house got totally destroyed,” said Florence Schaffhauser, who recently retired from a job at a local Winn-Dixie grocery store.

The couple, who live in nearby Springfield, are among hundreds of thousands of Northwest Floridians whose lives were upturned by the storm, and who are still waiting — over 200 days later — for Washington to agree on a federal aid package to help rebuild their community. It’s considered the longest period of time the U.S. government has taken to deliver an aid package after a storm. (By comparison, President Donald Trump agreed to a relief package for Houston-area residents just two weeks after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.)

“We’re not forgotten,” Florence Schaffhauser said, “we’re ignored.”

But on Wednesday, Florence and Ron Schaffhauser were among a sea of red “Make America Great Again” hats, watching and cheering as Marine One, the president’s helicopter, landed here beside the Aaron Bessant Amphitheater.

There’s plenty of reason to think Trump supporters in this area would be upset with the president. The Florida panhandle has been starved of desperately needed aid under his administration’s watch. But instead most here blamed their problems squarely on Democrats, highlighting the unwavering devotion to the president that many of his supporters still show, over two years into his first term.

“Heavens no,” Ron Schaffhauser told HuffPost, when asked if Trump bore some responsibility for the lack of a relief package for the Florida panhandle. It’s “the Democratic party, headed by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer” that’s to blame, he insisted.

An aid package to the Florida panhandle has been repeatedly delayed due to a disagreement between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump over how to rebuild Puerto Rico, whose residents are U.S. citizens, after it was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

House Democrats have offered a $17.2 billion aid package to address multiple recent natural disasters in the U.S., which includes over a billion dollars in further relief for Puerto Rico, and significant funds to rebuild here in the Florida panhandle as well.

But the president has been resistant to an aid package that includes more funds for Puerto Rico, whose leaders were publicly critical of his administration’s initial response to the hurricanes. Trump has similarly threatened to withhold funds to rebuild parts of California damaged by wildfires there after representatives in that state were critical of his administration. 

Trump has falsely claimed the death count in Puerto Rico — as high as 4,500 people, according to one Harvard study — was inflated by his political opponents to smear him. He has said on Twitter that Puerto Rico’s politicians “are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA.” (Puerto Rico is part of the United States.)

Trump supporters cheer as the president's helicopter lands in Panama City Beach, Florida on May 8, 2019. 
Trump supporters cheer as the president's helicopter lands in Panama City Beach, Florida on May 8, 2019. 

On Wednesday evening, as Trump took the stage for his campaign rally, chants rose up in the crowd of “Four more years!” He opened his speech by announcing a 90 percent federal cost share for Hurricane Michael costs, and $448 million in additional federal money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“No games, no gimmicks, no delays, we’re just doing it,” Trump said of the funding, promising to reach a larger deal with Democrats soon.

The president couldn’t resist a dig at Puerto Rico though, falsely claiming to the crowd that Puerto Rico has already received $90 billion in hurricane relief. It has actually been allocated less than half that amount, and has thus far only spent about $11 billion.

Nevertheless, among Trump’s supporters Wednesday, it was a widely shared view that it’s Puerto Rico that’s to blame for Puerto Rico’s problems.

Beth Thompson, a retired nurse, couldn’t understand why Democrats would want to give Puerto Rico — which is still reeling from the storms — more money. “Why?” she said. “They obviously haven’t done much with what we’ve given them.”

There was an overwhelming belief among the president’s supporters in Panama Beach City that he is unimpeachable, both in the sense that nothing he does is wrong, and that recent revelations about his presidency should not be grounds for his impeachment from Congress.

The recently released report by special counsel Robert Mueller describes 10 instances in which Trump may have obstructed justice by using his authority to interfere with Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Some Democrats are pushing to impeach him.

James Rothchild, a 42-year-old jet engine mechanic for the Department of Defense and a member of the Air Force reserve, stood in line Wednesday at the official campaign merchandise booth, tattoos of both the American and Confederate flags visible on his leg.

After buying a new MAGA hat and two Trump campaign T-shirts, he described why he felt Democrats would never impeach the president.

“I don’t think they have a legal leg to stand on, and I think they need to read up on the Constitution,” he said.

George Gorsky, 64, a retired Air Force veteran from Panama City, described the Mueller report as a waste of money.

“It’s like 12 cops picking up speeders,” he said. “Is that cost effective? I know it’s against the law, but you spend all that money, but for what? It’s the same thing for the Mueller report.”

Another man — a 52-year-old resident of Panama City Beach who asked not be named for fear of being “doxed” or harassed by liberals — said Mueller had millions of dollars to prove that the president did something wrong, but couldn’t.

“You’re one of the best investigators in the world and you couldn’t find guilt,” he said of Mueller. “They came up with 10 points [of obstruction of justice] but couldn’t say ‘You’re guilty.’”

The Mueller report explicitly did not exonerate Trump. Mueller chose to not charge Trump with obstruction because of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Mueller’s report, however, could be used as grounds to impeach the president. 

Sixty-one-year-old Randy Liston stood in line before the rally wearing a T-shirt underneath a black leather vest with a “Bikers For Trump” patch. Earlier this year the president suggested that Bikers for Trump were among the “tough people” who would support him if Democrats went too far in their investigations and who could make things “very bad, very bad.” Many interpreted the statement as a thinly veiled call to violence. 

“They got no grounds to impeach him,” said Liston, who works construction and flooring in Pace, Florida. “He’s done nothing wrong. That’s the problem with the liberal side of it. They got so much hatred towards this president.”

“If they pulled something like that,” he said of impeachment, “they’d have a major problem in the United States.” Asked to elaborate, Liston paused before saying, “Who knows.”

A woman nearby chimed in: “A lot more of us have … ” but didn’t finish her sentence.

There was a more radical element of Trump supporters in Panama City Beach Wednesday, namely QAnon conspiracy theorists.

As thousands of Trump supporters waited in line before the rally, a gaggle of QAnon believers walked around passing out flyers and Q-branded beer koozies. “Make some noise for Q, baby!” one woman screamed. A whole lot of people cheered her on.

QAnon, or simply “Q,” is an anonymous poster on various web forums, namely 8chan, who claims to be a high-level government employee with inside knowledge of the Mueller investigation. Q, in a series of clues, has suggested that the Mueller investigation is all a smokescreen, and that Mueller and Trump have been secretly working together to expose a globalist cabal of Satanist and pedophile Democrats.

“QAnon is a military operation taking down the deep state,” explained the woman passing out QAnon flyers, who refused to give HuffPost her name. QAnon believers think the “deep state” — namely government officials inside the FBI, CIA and other agencies — have been secretly working to destroy Trump.

Later Wednesday evening inside the Trump rally, a woman named Jennifer Dills from Crestview, Florida, stood waiting for the president to take the stage, a Q-branded bag slung over her shoulder. “QAnon, baby,” she told HuffPost about her bag. “The great awakening. Where we go one, we go all.”

“My president,” she described Trump to HuffPost. “My president. Rock this town and bring back some hope to this area that’s hurting.”