Politics & Government

Ukrainian influence in Florida? Republicans shrug it off while Democrats cry foul

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, center, demands an end to the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump Friday, outside Democratic U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala’s Kendall office.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, center, demands an end to the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump Friday, outside Democratic U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala’s Kendall office. AP

As top Florida Republicans were swept up this week in an ever expanding impeachment crisis facing President Donald Trump, GOP leaders expressed unwavering confidence that their stronghold on power in the state wasn’t threatened.

“Democrats are so infatuated with President Trump, they’re so deranged by his election ... frankly, Democrats need to get over it,” said U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, at an anti-impeachment rally outside Democratic U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala’s district office in Kendall on Friday afternoon. “They need to get over the fact that Donald Trump won and that we’re taking our country back.”

But unlike the slower moving news cycle surrounding the Mueller Report, revelations surrounding the July 25 phone call between Trump and the Ukraine president are multiplying by the day, spawning fresh avenues of investigation and giving Democrats more ammo.

A bombshell went off this week with news of the FBI arrest of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, both clients of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, on Wednesday night at Dulles International Airport in Virginia while they were attempting to board a one-way flight out of the country. They are accused of running a scheme to purchase U.S. political influence with illicit foreign campaign cash, and of lobbying a congressman on behalf of a Ukrainian government official.

Parnas and Fruman also donated last year to several Florida politicians, including Sen. Rick Scott, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Miami Herald also reported Wednesday that Parnas was a co-host on two fundraisers for DeSantis last year. On Thursday, following the arrests, DeSantis’ spokeswoman announced that the governor would “return” a $50,000 contribution from the duo’s company back to the federal government.

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From left to right: Igor Fruman, Lev Parnas, President Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani.

The two men also were helping Giuliani on his mission to find damning information in Ukraine on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

A Mast spokesman said he is also returning a $2,400 contribution from Fruman. Scott’s office didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.

Democrats pounced. An email blast from Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo called it “dirty money.” State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the news was a good reminder of the governor’s relationship to the president and the shady characters who surround him.

“Gov. DeSantis is trying really hard to appeal to moderates and walk the middle road [by making] announcements like teacher pay,” Eskamani said. “And then this happens, and it’s going to keep happening because we can never forget he was endorsed by Trump ... and that doesn’t leave when it’s convenient for you.”

Yet Republicans didn’t stray an inch from DeSantis, saying it was unfair to accuse the governor of having any knowledge of his donors’ criminal acts or intentions.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Joe Raedle Getty Images

“What happens with some of these fundraisers ... a lot of times as candidates, you show up to some of these events and all of a sudden these people show up and contribute money,” said state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who doubles as the state’s GOP party chair. “My guess is the governor never even shook their hands, never took a picture.”

Gruters spoke to a reporter after the anti-impeachment rally outside Shalala’s office. There, the attendees sipped cafecito from Don Pan bakery and solicited honks from drivers passing by.

Even former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who served in Congress with DeSantis but has since left the Republican Party, said that he thinks DeSantis has maneuvered skillfully when it comes to Trump, and has walked the line of using Trump’s political star power as an asset while publicly keeping him at arm’s length since his election as governor.

Jolly noted that DeSantis doesn’t appear on cable news to defend Trump the way he used to when he was in Congress.

“Trump world is full of these scurrilous miscreants. We’ve known it from the beginning and it’s been odd how warmly Trump world has been embraced by leading Republicans,” Jolly said. “Until he was elected governor, Ron DeSantis was one of those people ... but I really think he’s gone off the Trump grid, publicly.”

Contact Emily L. Mahoney at emahoney@tampabay.com. Follow @mahoneysthename

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