Donald Trump addresses a rally at the Collier County Fairgrounds on Oct. 23, 2016 after flying over the Everglades from Palm Beach. (Photo: The author)
March 28, 2019 by David Silverberg
After underfunding Everglades restoration work in his proposed budget, President Donald Trump can be expected to distract from this shortfall by touting work on the Hoover Dike and the planned Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir when he is scheduled to visit Lake Okeechobee tomorrow, Friday, March 29.
Announcement of the visit was issued on Tuesday, March 26, by Judd Deere, deputy White House press secretary who tweeted: “@POTUS to visit Lake Okeechobee Friday to tout work on dike repair, EAA reservoir.”
Further details of the visit were not available as of this writing but it will coincide with Trump’s latest weekend vacation trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
According to a White House statement regarding the trip:
“The Herbert Hoover Dike project exemplifies the Trump Administration’s efforts to promote federal and state collaboration on infrastructure projects that benefit its surrounding communities, which is why it was prioritized in the president’s 2019 budget request.
“President Trump is visiting Florida on Friday because he understands that these investments are vital to minimizing potential impacts, including harmful algae blooms, and improving water quality during rainy seasons in the years ahead.”
In fact, far from prioritizing the Everglades projects, the trip comes after Florida Republican lawmakers banded together on March 14 to decry the administration’s underfunding them. The Hoover Dike repair and EAA projects are critical to cleaning water from Lake Okeechobee before it can flow out the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. Polluted water last year led to blue-green algae blooms in the rivers and fed red tide in the Gulf, damaging Southwest Florida’s tourist season, marine life and overall environment.
In a statement criticizing the president’s proposed budget, Florida’s senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and representatives Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Brian Mast (R-18-Fla.) announced:
“For the third year in a row, the administration’s budget request underfunds critical projects in South Florida. It is incredibly short-sighted to continue to underfund a series of projects that are absolutely necessary to ensure the environmental sustainability and economic vitality important to the State of Florida and enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress. Failing to meet the basic federal funding commitments to restore the Everglades is contrary to the administration’s goal of improving project partnerships and cost-sharing with states. Successive Florida Governors have remained committed to this goal, pushing state funding of this 50/50 federal-state partnership to historic highs. Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers envisioned a $200 million per year federal commitment when the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was first authorized nearly 20 years ago, and it is time for the administration to meet that commitment.”
Federal funding for Everglades restoration is also critical to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plans, which call for $2.5 billion in spending on water quality projects over the next four years. As noted in the statement, $200 million each year was long pledged for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
Analysis: The visit and the visuals
Why is Donald Trump suddenly so concerned about Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades that he’s making a trip to see them for himself?
Some answers suggest themselves:
- As the White House statement declared, the purpose of the trip is to “tout” the president. He will praise himself for Everglades support that he has not offered in this or past budgets. This is part of his post-Robert Mueller victory lap.
- With Florida a crucial—perhaps the most crucial—state in the 2020 election, it will be an effort by Trump to keep Florida in the Republican column by creating favorable publicity and exciting supporters.
- It is an effort to mollify the Republican lawmakers who banded together to criticize the lack of Everglades/Okeechobee funding in the budget proposal.
- It is an effort to support Gov. Ron DeSantis, who owes his entire success to Trump and is now trying to actually address Florida’s water and environmental problems. DeSantis’ efforts, however, are undercut by Trump’s budget proposal, his insistence on money for his border wall and the potential for his national emergency and funding reprogramming to actually take money away from repairs to the Hoover Dike and other critical US Army Corps of Engineers projects in southern Florida.
- It is an effort by the president to establish some environmental credentials, since his every action since taking office has been inimical to Florida’s environmental health.
For their part, DeSantis, Rubio, Scott, Rooney and Mast will no doubt use the occasion to lobby the president to bump up funding for the Everglades-Hoover Dike projects, either with special supplemental funding proposals or through executive actions, since he’s already put his budget proposal before Congress. Put another way, they may try to convince him not to take Everglades funding away as he pulls together money to build his border wall. As part of this, they will also no doubt extravagantly flatter him and his efforts for Florida.
Very interesting in all this is the total absence of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), whose district covers nearly all of the Everglades. Diaz-Balart did not sign on to the Rubio/Scott/Rooney/Mast statement and he has not made any statements regarding Everglades funding and the president’s budget. He will likely be present when the president tours the Hoover Dike and the Everglades but he has otherwise been a cipher on this issue.
In conventional politics, a presidential visit to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades would be the occasion for the president to announce new funding for these vital projects. That may actually happen this time. All the groundwork should be have already been layed to have the president make a grand gesture of support and call for a bipartisan effort to ensure that this work gets done.
But this is not a conventional president. If he behaves as he has in the past, his visit will be a narcissistic exercise in self-praise, a vicious vilification of enemies real and perceived and digressions into irrelevant or peripheral topics.
This is not the first time Trump has seen the Everglades or spoken regarding the infrastructure surrounding it. On Oct. 23, 2016 he visited the Collier County Fairgrounds during his presidential election campaign.
“A Trump administration will also work alongside you to restore and protect the beautiful Florida Everglades,” he pledged in a disjointed speech. “Our plan will also help you upgrade water and waste water. And you know you have a huge problem with water, so that the Florida aquifer is pure and safe from pollution, we have to do that. We will also repair Herbert Hoover Dike in Lake Okeechobee, a lake [with which] I’m very familiar…”
He also provided some rambling observations of the area.
“I just flew over,” he said following his helicopter flight from Palm Beach. “I just flew over and let me tell you, when you fly over the Everglades and you look at those gators and you look at the water moccasins, go on, you say, ‘I better have a good helicopter!’ I told the pilot, ‘You sure we’re OK? Those are big! Because that’s a rough looking site down there!’ You don’t want to be down there and I’ve heard for a long time go around the Everglades it’ll take you longer but…” he said, trailing off and addressing other, unrelated topics.
(On a side note, it is very interesting—and alarming—to listen to Trump’s 2016 speech again. It’s full of slurred words, incomplete thoughts and unconnected statements. The whole speech can be heard on C-SPAN.)
Floridians should not be distracted by the breathless local media coverage, the hoopla, the rhetoric and the ceremony of a presidential visit. The ultimate test of Trump’s latest excursion—and the success of Rubio, Scott, Rooney and Mast—will be whether the Hoover Dike repairs and the federal portion of CERP are fully funded.
All else is commentary.