Proud Boys try to assimilate into Florida GOP as Trump denies knowing extremist group

©Miami Herald

MIAMI — Donald Trump isn’t alone in distancing himself from the Proud Boys. Florida Republicans who’ve snapped photos with the group’s members say they don’t know much about the self-described militia group either.

About 48 hours after the president told the organization to “stand back, and stand by” during the first presidential debate, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott condemned “all forms of racism, violence, or discrimination, including the Proud Boys” when asked about a picture he took two years ago with the group’s Miami-based chairman. Also Thursday, a spokeswoman for Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart said he “has had no interaction with said group” since posing with a man wearing Proud Boys garb at a 2018 event promoting democracy in Nicaragua.

But despite Republicans’ protests, the Proud Boys continue to make frequent appearances in Florida GOP politics. They’re running for office, canvassing voting centers, and engaging in at-times dishonest, at-times aggressive protests on behalf of Republican candidates, including Trump.

“They’re dangerous. They interfere with speech. Their chief enabler is the president of the United States,” said U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, a Miami Democrat who has had several run-ins with the Proud Boys. “The local Republican Party must stop them from aligning with the mainstream Republican Party.”

Proud Boy Chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio Jr., a twice-convicted felon, is a familiar face at Republican events in South Florida. When he isn’t wearing protective gear in protest zones in Portland, he might be in a black-and-gold Fred Perry polo shirt welcoming then Governor-elect Ron DeSantis in Little Havana in the winter of 2018 or standing in the risers last year during a Trump rally at Florida International University.

The 36-year-old Cuban-American became the group’s leader in late 2018 when founder Gavin McInnes quit. Since then, Tarrio, who identifies as Afro-Cuban, has encouraged the Proud Boys to be more politically active.

He launched a campaign for Congress in January from Trump’s Doral golf resort. He became a leader in Florida for a Latinos for Trump organization unaffiliated with the Trump campaign. And when Trump said “Proud Boys: Stand back. Stand by,” after he was asked to condemn the group during the debate Tuesday, someone in the organization made it the Proud Boy motto online.

One Miami member of the Proud Boys, Gabriel Garcia, appeared to receive financial support from Florida’s House speaker this summer when he launched a primary challenge against state Rep. Daniel Perez, a Miami Republican in line to be speaker of the House in 2024. Current House Speaker Jose Oliva, also from Miami, contributed more than $800,000 from his political committee to another PAC promoting Garcia, but has said the money was intended to back a different candidate running for Miami-Dade mayor.

Garcia, a U.S. Army captain who won 41% of the vote in his unsuccessful challenge of Perez, said descriptions of the Proud Boys as a hate group are lies. His affiliation with the group was not previously reported.

“I’m upset we were called a hate group (in the debate) when you have antifa beating up on elderly people coming out of Trump rallies, burning down police cars,” he said of the anti-fascism protest movement marked by outbursts of violence on the left. “You’ll never see any of us do that.”

Garcia is among a number of Proud Boys who have run for office, according to Tarrio.

“We have our guys who are running for office, and we’ll be busy door-knocking pretty much across the county,” Tarrio this week told the online news site Business Insider. “We’re focused on the election and getting our favorite candidates elected, including our guys.”

Tarrio, who describes himself on Ballotpedia as an owner of surveillance and security businesses, registered to vote in February. He’d been removed from the voting rolls in Miami-Dade County after he was convicted in 2014 and received a 30-month federal prison sentence for his role in a scheme involving re-branding stolen medical devices for diabetes and reselling them. Tarrio served 16 months. When he was 20, he was sentenced to three years on probation for a stolen motorcycle.

Tarrio did not respond to multiple phone calls seeking comment. In multiple interviews this week, he has denied that the Proud Boys are a hate group or a militia.

“We practice our Second Amendment rights every chance we get,” he told WSVN-7 this week. “But that doesn’t mean that we think we’re some kind of standing army, because we’re not.”

Trump, though, distanced himself from the Proud Boys Thursday night, condemning them on Fox News. And his campaign issued a statement Thursday stressing that the Trump campaign’s Latinos for Trump outreach effort is separate and apart from the group by the same name in which Tarrio is involved.

“I condemn the KKK. I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys,” Trump said on Sean Hannity’s show.

Just like Trump, Florida Republicans have been conflicted in their relationship with the Proud Boys.

In the fall of 2018, the chairman of the Miami-Dade GOP apologized after Tarrio confronted U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outside a Shalala Coral Gables campaign office during a protest organized by Miami Republicans, including Trump’s current Florida campaign state director. Tarrio shouted expletives at Pelosi, who recalled Thursday that “they came and pounded the doors and shook the place … scaring everyone.” Afterward, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio disavowed the scene, tweeting that protesters had behaved “like the repudiation mobs Castro has long used in Cuba.”

Tarrio also complained on Facebook last year that he wasn’t allowed to attend the Miami-Dade GOP’s Christmas Party.

And yet, during the 2018 Florida election recounts for governor and U.S. Senate, the Proud Boys were among a crowd of protesters who joined Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz outside the Broward County elections office to claim without evidence that elections staff were “finding votes” for Democrats. Gaetz, a Trump confidant, posed for a photo with a member of the group. Other Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Donald Trump Jr., have also taken selfies with Tarrio.

While Trump now says he doesn’t know the Proud Boys, Tarrio is also close with Roger Stone, a former Trump political adviser whose prison sentence for lying to Congress was commuted this year by the president. Reached Thursday, Stone told the Miami Herald he was suing the newspaper over an article detailing Facebook’s decision to kick him off its platform after spotting “inauthentic behavior” in sites boosting Stone and the Proud Boys.

“Proud Boys?” Stone texted. “The attorney general of the United States says that ANTIFA Is a well-funded, well organized conspiracy yet senile Joe Biden, perhaps the single most corrupt US senator in history, insists that they don’t even exist. It seems like you may be missing the story out of Yesterday’s debate.”

A spokesman for the Republican Party said that the president’s remarks at the debate should be interpreted as a condemnation of the Proud Boys.

“President Trump has a long track record of denouncing, disavowing and condemning white supremacists, and hate groups and did so regarding the Proud Boys,” said Paris Dennard, a senior communications advisor for Black Media Affairs at the Republican National Committee. “The RNC condemns all hate groups like Antifa, the KKK and the Proud Boys.”

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