Trump to make Florida the face of America's reopening at Cape Canaveral rocket launch

©Miami Herald

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

MIAMI — Grounded for weeks in Washington by the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump is returning to Florida on Wednesday for the first launch on American soil in nearly a decade of astronauts into space.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are set to attend an anticipated 4:33 p.m. EDT liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center, the same location where Americans last launched to the moon. The SpaceX rocket carrying veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley is considered by the Trump administration to be a test run for the kind of public-private partnerships that will reinvigorate the American economy.

The launch from Florida’s Space Coast is a ready-made opportunity for the Republican president, who in his first term has prioritized space exploration, to push his message that America is open for business. The launch also offers Trump — unable to hold his signature rallies due to coronavirus restrictions — a dramatic homecoming at a crucial period, with states reopening and Election Day less than six months away.

“It’s just hugely symbolic on a number of levels. It’s a relaunch of American astronauts from American soil into space,” said Florida Congressman Michael Waltz, who plans to travel Wednesday with Trump from Washington to Cape Canaveral. “In the wake of this virus, it’s a relaunch of America.”

The White House on Tuesday played up the flashy event as proof of its concept that private investment, innovation and collaboration can serve as a catalyst for economic revitalization, innovation and space travel, and that SpaceX’s reusable rockets are a safe and cost-efficient way for Americans to travel to space.

“President Trump is looking forward to watching NASA Commercial Crew and SpaceX’s Demo-2 Launch send Americans to space from American soil for the first time in almost a decade,” said Assistant Press Secretary Austin Cantrell. “‘Launch America’ not only restores American dominance and unlocks our entrepreneurial spirit in space, but it also symbolizes America’s ‘transition to greatness’ after an unprecedented disruption.”

A Trump campaign statement said that Florida residents “are eager to host” the event that marks the return of Trump to his home state.

Polls show Trump running several points behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the state that is critical to the Republican’s reelection effort. Unable to hold the in-person rallies he’d planned, the rocket launch is Trump’s first opportunity to make an appearance in the swing state since early March.

Waltz, a Republican whose district borders the northern tip of Cape Canaveral, said he doesn’t view the launch as part of the campaign. He spoke to Trump about a month ago about coming to see the event in person, he said, because it’s hugely important for the future of the U.S.

“You can’t be number two in space and still be number one on earth,” said Waltz, who worries about China’s activities on the moon and in space. “I’m just thrilled Florida is front and center in all of this.”

But the politics of the moment are undeniable. Florida Republicans are encouraging Trump to move the Republican National Convention from Charlotte to his home state. And Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, has become a prominent figure in the push against coronavirus restrictions after reopening a California Tesla plant in defiance of local regulations.

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo dismissed Trump’s visit Tuesday as politics as usual.

“While we celebrate the SpaceX launch and are grateful it’s taking place in our state, let’s be clear that Donald Trump is not coming to Florida because the success of this mission depends on the president’s presence — he’s coming to campaign in the largest battleground state in the country,” Rizzo said in a statement.

But Democrats’ criticisms of Trump were notably laced with praise for the president’s efforts to promote commercial space travel. In a press call lined up by Biden’s campaign, former Democratic Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and former NASA administrator Charles Bolden complimented the Trump administration’s support for Wednesday’s launch but stressed that the Obama administration played a large role by encouraging commercial space travel.

“Joe Biden was very much a part of this whole thing,” said Nelson, adding later: “Any time you can have a president and vice president at a launch, I think it’s a good sign.”

Weather willing, Pence and Trump will present a united front at the space launch that will bring them back to the critical swing state a week after the vice president traveled to Orlando to meet with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to discuss the state’s strategy for reopening. Trump’s last visit to Florida was the weekend of March 8, just before he announced he was suspending travel from Europe.

Pence at a National Space Council meeting in Washington last week said the launch is both “a dawn of a new era of American leadership in space” and a symbol of the nation’s recovery from the pandemic that shuttered it 11 weeks ago.

“I have to tell you that it’s going to be a great inspiration to the country next week to see you two go aloft from the Kennedy Space Center,” Pence told the mission’s astronauts during a video conference.

DeSantis was one of the first governors to meet Trump at the White House to talk about reopening in late April. Under DeSantis, Florida continues to be in Phase I of its reopening, with schools still closed. But the governor has given the green light to summer camps, most beaches are open, and South Florida — the epicenter of the state’s outbreak — is slowly loosening restrictions.

Through Tuesday, Florida has reported more than 52,000 coronavirus cases, and 2,259 deaths.

But Florida’s pace of opening and declining COVID-19 cases has made it an attractive alternative for the Republican National Convention if Trump follows through on a threat to move it out of Charlotte should North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper refuse to accede to his demand to fully return to normal by the start date of the August conference.

Pence and state Republican Party officials on Monday suggested Florida as a possible alternative.

“Florida would love to have the RNC (convention),” DeSantis said Tuesday in Miami, noting that it would be good for business.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a Tuesday briefing that the number of coronavirus cases continues to go down nationally and Trump wants to move forward with the nominating convention as planned.

“At this moment the president wants to see this convention take place and sees no reason not to as the nation begins to reopen,” she said.

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©2020 Miami Herald

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Bill Ingalls/NASA/TNS/TNS