In his first visit to The Villages, President Donald Trump launched an all-out attack on one of the main proposals backed by progressive Democrats hoping to evict him from the White House in 2020. His message Thursday to the invitation-only audience inside the 1,000-seat Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center and the thousands watching a live feed outside was simple: Expanding Medicare eligibility to everyone will destroy the program.
“As long as I am president, no one will lay a hand on your Medicare benefits,” Trump promised Thursday.
After a one-hour speech, he signed an executive order to expand Medicare’s private insurance options for seniors. The order acts as an official denouncement of the “Medicare for All” proposals by some Democrats in Congress and presidential hopefuls. Republicans argue giving Medicare to everyone will detract from seniors’ benefits, lead to long waits that could prove fatal for seniors and bankrupt the system.
Trump became the second sitting president to come to The Villages, and he expressed his admiration for the community.
“I’m thrilled to be here, one of the most famous and thriving communities anywhere in Florida, and really anywhere in the world as far as I’m concerned,” Trump said.
The visit means a lot to this community, said Sumter County Commissioner Al Butler, one of the members of the invite-only audience.
“It’s a great honor to have the president visit The Villages and speak about health care,” said Butler, of the Village of Bridgeport at Lake Sumter. “He was warmly received, and the audience was excited and honored. I liked how he teased the crowd and went a little off script. You could see him getting enjoyment out of it.”
Signs promising “Great Healthcare For You,” decorated either side of the presidential podium, and a roaring crowd gave one standing ovation after another as Trump repeatedly promised to protect Medicare and declared that “America will never be a socialist country.”
He blasted the idea of expanding Medicare coverage to everyone, saying that such a plan would result in incredibly long waits for urgently needed treatments.
On stage with Trump, seated among a group that included politicians and White House officials, were two Medicare users who spoke about their experiences with the program, Socorra “Corey” Spangler, of Summerfield, and Charles McLaughlin, of Lighthouse Point in South Florida.
Spangler, who had five heart bypasses at 65, spoke about her Medicare experiences with Trump by her side. She was chosen by the White House to speak at this event because of her experiences with the health care system and her avid support of Trump’s policies, she said.
“Medicare for All is going to put you on a waiting list,” said Spangler, now 77, “and I could have had a heart attack and died before they got around to me. This was very important to me.”
Meeting the president and speaking in support of his executive order “was a thrill of a lifetime, to tell you the truth,” Spangler said afterward.
“I was just thrilled to death that I got chosen to be able to say something with the president there,” she said. “I get to tell my great-grandbaby that I got to meet the president of the United States. What more could I ask for?”
Also on stage with Trump were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey. Throughout his address, Trump brought up his close relationship with DeSantis and the work the governor has done to lower prescription drug costs in the state.
In June, DeSantis signed a bill to import medicine from Canada in pursuit of this goal. Like Trump, he chose The Villages as the location to put pen to paper.
At the conclusion of his remarks, Trump signed the executive order, meant to improve “service to American seniors in many vital ways.”
The latest Medicare promise contains provisions protecting patients, making health care affordable and giving Medicare users options when choosing physicians.
Throughout Trump’s address, he called attention to his proximity with those in the audience. If he weren’t the president, he said, maybe he would be retired like them. Maybe he’d be their neighbor.
“I grew up with you,” Trump said.
Villagers in the audience — both inside The Sharon and outside in the square — energetically reacted to his speech, throwing jabs at Democrats when given an opening or chanting “four more years” and “U-S-A.”
Trump’s visit came just a little over a week after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry, but the president barely mentioned it. He did touch on a wide range of other topics and drew loud applause as talked about immigration and the upcoming 2020 election.
Many of those in the invitation-only event were local government officials, including Sumter Commissioner Steve Printz.
“If you don’t think the president cares about the people of this country, or don’t think he is a warm individual, then you’re not listening,” said Printz, of the Village of Fernandina. “The actions he’s taken relative to Medicare have improved the quality of life for all seniors. He’s asking questions from a practical business perspective and asking questions about why things are the way they are; and why can’t we fix them? He’s poking and probing and looking out for us.”
Sumter County Commission Chairman Don Burgess said Trump’s speech inspired him.
“I thought it was outstanding,” said Burgess, of the Village of Bonnybrook. “He made a striking speech that addresses all the issues that seniors are dealing with.”
The president’s executive order meets key needs that Burgess said he hears frequently from his constituents.
“It stressed transparency, pricing and choice,” he said. “These are the things that concern most seniors as they try to work their way through the medical system.”
State Sen. Dennis Baxley, whose district includes The Villages, applauded the president for his executive action.
“The president clearly articulated today his vision to make Medicare work best and meet the health needs of our community,” Baxley said. “The president knows that his opponents’ plans will diminish Medicare for its rightful participants and expand and use those monies to expand Medicare for All. He’s on a path to protect the seniors for whom it was established.”
Trump’s decision to sign the executive order in The Villages aligns with his vision to lead the country, Baxley said.
“He’s one of the hardest working presidents I’ve ever seen,” he said. “He cares deeply about this country and core values, and he’s in an all-out war to sustain the America that we love. He knows the power of The Villages, and that the people there love him and love this country.”
Anticipation for Trump’s visit has been building since July, when the White House announced his intent to visit in August to sign an executive order on Medicare. But Trump postponed the trip in the wake of a pair of mass shootings the weekend before he was slated to come here.
The Villages was a natural location for his Medicare order. Not only is the community a Republican stronghold, but Sumter County had the highest percentage of Medicare beneficiaries of all 67 Florida counties — 53% in 2017, or around 69,000 people — according to the latest data from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Medicare is shaping up to be a key issue in Florida, the swingiest of the nation’s swing states. In the last six presidential elections, Florida has gone for the Republican three times and the Democrat three times.
The Villages lies on the edge of the I-4 corridor, the voter-heavy area along Interstate 4 that runs from Tampa through Orlando to Daytona Beach. It’s the most fought over — and least predictable — part of the nation’s largest battleground state, one that has proved pivotal in deciding presidential elections.
Trump tweeted about his Villages visit about a half-hour after Marine One took off from The Villages Polo Club en route back to Air Force One waiting for him in Ocala.
“Great time at The Villages in Florida today,” he wrote. “Sorry we couldn’t get everybody in. I will be back soon!”
Tyler Breaman and David R. Corder contributed to this article. Staff writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or email@example.com.