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Inside Oval Office, Rubio and Diaz-Balart pushed Trump to crack down on Cuba
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI
pmazzei@miamiherald.com

Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart sat in the Oval Office last
month, surrounded by two Cabinet secretaries, the national security
adviser and an array of top White House staff, and asked President
Donald Trump to put his power behind their plans for Cuba.

The Miami Republican lawmakers had been pressing Trump for months to
unwind former President Barack Obama’s policies, bringing up Cuba at
every opportunity: Diaz-Balart when he and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen met
in private with their former House colleague, Vice President Mike Pence,
in February; Rubio when he and his wife joined the president and first
lady for an intimate dinner two days later, and again when the senator
flew aboard Air Force One to Florida in March.

The administration had been waiting for deputies across Cabinet agencies
to review existing Cuba regulations. By the May 3 Oval Office meeting,
their recommendation was in: Keep Obama’s push to normalize U.S.
relations with the regime of Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

That’s not what Trump wanted. As a candidate, he’d promised change to
South Florida’s Cuban-American hard-liners, including Bay of Pigs
veterans who endorsed him, a gesture that stuck with Trump and that he
repeatedly mentioned as president.

“The president said, ‘Look, I want to do this,’ ” Rubio said.

So Rubio and Diaz-Balart advised Trump to work from the top down and
impose his will over the reluctance of civil servants — including
employees of two of the men in the room, Homeland Security Secretary
John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“We had seen before that the administration and the president would push
for it, but every time it went down, the bureaucracy would torpedo it,”
Diaz-Balart said.

Trump agreed. So did National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and White
House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus: Trump’s Cuba policy would be
written by the White House and National Security Council, with help from
Rubio and Diaz-Balart.

The result will be new restrictions on U.S. business dealings with the
Cuban military, which controls most of Cuba’s , and tighter rules
for non-Cuban Americans traveling to the island.

“It is my hope that in five to 10 years — or less — Cuba will look very
different, and people will point to this as the moment that kind of
triggered those changes,” Rubio said.

The policy rewrite, completed Wednesday ahead of Trump’s Friday
announcement in Miami, represents a major political achievement for
Rubio, who cited Cuba as one of the reasons for seeking reelection to
the Senate last year, and for Diaz-Balart, the only one of three local
Cuban-American Republican House members who endorsed Trump. (The two who
didn’t, Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, weren’t directly involved
in crafting the new policy.)

“This is an issue that was not getting a lot of attention,” Diaz-Balart
said. “Fortunately, we were able to get it from the back burner to the
front burner just by being persistent.”

The Cuban-American legislators had each enumerated their own ideas to
the White House separately earlier this year, keeping them so tightly
held that when the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald obtained
Diaz-Balart’s memo from another source in March, not even his own staff
had copies readily available.

The memo had been hand-delivered to the president by Gov. Rick Scott,
who saw Trump in Orlando and repeated what he’d suggested at a prior
February meeting at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

“My recommendation to him was that he have one person — whether it be
Secretary Tillerson or someone else — that was going to focus on Cuba
policy,” Scott said.

Rubio’s outline was never made public. As White House talks progressed,
his aides took to photographing hard copies of the proposed policy and
sharing them via text message to avoid using email, a platform where
Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is perennially a
target. The senator and his aides referred to the project as “Martí,”
after the Cuban patriot José Martí — only they anglicized the
pronunciation to “Marty.”

Diaz-Balart’s behind-the-scenes work spilled into public view in March,
when the White House courted his vote for the American Care Act.
Diaz-Balart used the attention to again bring up Cuba, seeking
assurances that Trump would follow through on revising Obama’s policy.
Diaz-Balart voted “Yes” on the legislation and denied getting any
promises from the White House. But now word was out that Cuba was in play.

Rubio’s critics accused him last week of protecting Trump — or whatever
Cuba deal was in the works — when Rubio grilled former FBI Director
James Comey during a Senate hearing. Rubio scoffed at the suggestion; at
that point, he’d been talking to the White House about Cuba for months.

Trump had first mentioned Cuba to Rubio in November, when Rubio
telephoned the Sunday after Election Day to congratulate his former
primary rival.

“He says to me, unprompted: ‘We gotta figure out what to do about
Cuba,’ ” Rubio recalled. “ ‘The Bay of Pigs guys were great to me.’ ”

(“That obviously really got to him, the heroes of Bay of Pigs and how
they had been betrayed,” Diaz-Balart said in a separate interview. “He
brings that up all the time.”)

Following their February White House dinner, Trump and Rubio discussed
Cuba again aboard Air Force One on March 3, when Rubio joined the
president and Secretary Betsy DeVos on a charter- visit.
On April 27, Rubio and Priebus spoke by phone and came to an agreement:
no more waiting.

After that, things progressed quickly, with only a handful of people
inside the White House, NSC and Congress clued in. Some of the policy
framework had already been written: Two years ago, Rubio filed Senate
legislation prohibiting financial transactions with Cuban military and
security services. Last year, Diaz-Balart placed similar language into a
House budget bill before Democrats forced it out.

Word that Cuba changes were afoot didn’t leak until Memorial Day
weekend. Backers of Obama’s policy scrambled, releasing polls showing
support for Cuba engagement, writing letters to the White House, and
filing legislation in Congress in a show of force to Trump.

By then, it was too late.

Source: How Rubio and Diaz-Balart pushed Trump to crack down on Cuba |
Miami Herald –
www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/article156337719.html

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