Trump takes Miami

The billionaire panders to Reform Party loyalists and Cuban dissidents as he toys with seeking the presidency.

By John Lantigua

Published November 16, 1999 10:06AM (EST)

Donald Trump took his prospective run for the presidency of the United States on the road for the first time Monday swooping into Miami in his private 727 jet with his latest model-girlfriend, Melania Knauss on his arm.

Trump, who is obviously relishing his half-serious flirtation with the Reform Party presidential nomination, landed in Miami from the Dominican Republic, where he attended the 32nd-birthday party for baseball star Sammy Sosa at Sosa's new pyramid-style mansion.

Trump came to South Florida to address two separate constituencies, Cuban-Americans and members of the Reform Party, in his uphill battle to convince both that Trump is the real deal. In both instances he received warm receptions, but few assurances of support.

About 1,000 supporters of the Cuban American National Foundation, the most powerful anti-Castro lobby in the United States, gave Trump several standing ovations during a speech Monday night peppered with applause lines. "Castro has jails full of dissidents, cemeteries full of patriots and a government full of thugs," Trump said, before unveiling his highly-developed Castro policy: "Adios, amigo." The crowd went wild.

Trump was invited to Miami by the foundation after he wrote an editorial for the Miami Herald June 25 denouncing any lifting of the economic embargo against Cuba. He wrote that he had turned down repeated offers from European investment groups to join in money-making schemes on the island. He reiterated that stance in Miami.

"Hardly a day goes by that an offer doesn't come across my desk to go into business in Cuba," he said. "I've decided I won't do it until Castro is gone." After the foundation president Jorge Mas Santos praised Trump's remarks, Trump joked: "Does this mean I get the first hotel after Cuba is free?"

At least he appeared to be joking.

Trump was met at Miami International Airport by Mas Santos and other foundation officials, after landing in his jet subtly emblazoned with "TRUMP" in large gold lettering on its sides with stage prop Knauss firmly in tow. At a press conference later Knauss was asked if she was planning to redecorate the east wing of the White House. She said she would wait and see.

A police escort then led Trump's limousine to the Little Havana section of Miami where he spoke at the headquarters of the Veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, to another warm reception.

But leaders of the conservative Cuban American foundation made it clear their regard for Trump did not translate into support for his Reform Party bid. "This has nothing to do with votes," said foundation-board member Ninoska Perez Castellon. "It is simply a way to say thank you because he is willing to say no to Castro."

"He has spoken of our cause on CNN news and Larry King and that has raised the standard for the other candidates," said foundation spokesman Fernando Rojas. "He has gotten our message out and we appreciate that."

Trump's other key meeting was with Florida members of the Reform Party, some 80 to 100 of whom came from throughout the state to meet with him. Trump has been urged to run for the nomination by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party's highest ranking elected official.

Trump kept a straight face as he positioned himself as the only alternative to the current Reform Party presidential front runner, commentator Pat Buchanan. Trump has attacked Buchanan in recent weeks, accusing him of anti-Semitism, of insensitivity towards blacks and gays and for being a pro-life zealot.

Ronn Young, the national treasurer of the Reform Party, said he had come to Miami specifically to urge Trump to enter the race. "It will be an uphill battle for him," Young acknowledged. "Buchanan has the political experience and the grassroots organization. It will interesting. The more nationally known people we have in the party the better."

In a closed meeting with the Florida members, Trump reiterated his recently announced plan for reducing the national debt, slashing taxes and bolstering Social Security: a one-time 14.25 percent tax on the net worth of all United States citizens and trusts worth $10 million or more. The plan has been attacked by some economists and by Buchanan, who have said the scheme would cause flight of capital from the U.S.

Trump also said he was not intimidated by the $100 million campaign war chest built by GOP front-runner George W. Bush and was ready to spend more than that out of his own pocket if he thinks he can win the presidency. Trump used one of his many press conferences to attack Bush as a feudal heir to the presidency.

"The son isn't particularly good at anything he's done, but he's anointed," Trump said. Trump, meanwhile, pointed to his bank account as his primary presidential qualification. "Have any of the other candidates made a billion dollars in a short time?" he asked rhetorically. "No they haven't."

Florida Reform Party vice chairwoman Pauline Klein of Key Largo praised Trump's presentation, but was worried by his offer to fund his own campaign.

"We in the Reform Party support campaign finance reform and a system where you don't have to be a billionaire to run for office," she said. "Our nomination is not for sale," a strange declaration, since the only person to ever get the party's presidential nomination is Reform Party godfather and former sugar-daddy H. Ross Perot.

Anthony Hernandez of Tampa, secretary of the state party, said he was worried by Trump's repeated insistence that he would only run if he thought he could win. Hernandez said he and other party members were concerned of a repeat that the 1992 scenario, in which Reform Party candidate Ross Perot dropped out of the race temporarily in the middle of the campaign.

"We want somebody whose committed to leaving an infrastructure of state parties on which we can build," said Hernandez.

State party chairman Frank Goldman welcomed Trump to the fray against Buchanan. "In the Reform Party we could have a real race," he said, "not like the other two parties."

He said he hoped the two well-known figures would engage in meaningful debate. "I'd like to see the celebrity circus evolve into a meaningful discussion of the issues," he said.

Trump advisors said the candidate is in the process of developing positions on issues to do just that. Trump has scheduled two more meetings with Reform Party members this year: Hartford, Dec. 1 and Los Angeles, Dec. 6-7. He is also planning a similar foray to the Midwest, possibly St.Louis, early next year.

Douglas Friedline, former campaign chairman for Ventura, was in Miami for the events. He said he had been invited by Trump to discuss the structuring of a possible campaign. "The challenge he has is the same we had with Gov. Ventura in the beginning, that he be taken seriously as a candidate," Friedline said.

Friedline said Trump had made three positive moves in that direction in the past month: the naming of a presidential exploratory committee; the naming of a political director, Roger Stone; and the forming of a media team. "Now what he needs to do is develop stands on key issues," he said. Friedline said he expected Trump to construct a position on health care before long. He also said that Trump had hired Phil Madsen, who ran Ventura's campaign Web site, to do the same for the Trump effort.

Whether or not Trump is to be taken seriously indeed seemed to be the issue with the editors of the Miami Herald Monday. They assigned a regular news reporter to the events, but for the press bus they assigned nationally known humorist Dave Barry. "Where else would I be today but here," Barry said.

John Lantigua

John Lantigua is a Miami freelance writer. He shared the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his work at the Miami Herald. Lantigua's fifth novel, "The Ultimate Havana" will be published next year by Signet.

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