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Voters In Florida's Panhandle Still Have Faith In Trump's Foreign Policy


President Trump has faced criticism this week for his evolving statements on Russia and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Republicans in Congress say he's making a mistake by cozying up to an American enemy. But in the conservative Florida panhandle, voters still have faith in Trump's foreign policy, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Pensacola, Fla., bills itself as the cradle of naval aviation. The Blue Angels are based here, and it's a huge military flight training center. After their service, veterans tend to come back to settle here.

JAMES ZUMWALT: I would say it's hard to find a place more - outside of Texas it's hard to find a place more veteran-friendly than here in northwest Florida.

ELLIOTT: James E. Zumwalt is a former naval explosive ordnance disposal officer who served two tours in Iraq. He takes it in stride when Army vet Michelle Salzman stokes a rivalry.


ZUMWALT: We can agree to disagree.

SALZMAN: Yes, we can. We're going to have to, man.

ELLIOTT: They met at Pensacola's Veterans Memorial Park.

SALZMAN: Yes. It's all good 'cause at the end of the day we're on the same mission, so...


ELLIOTT: Pride and patriotism run deep in this community. So does support for the president, even as he's taking hits from all sides in Washington, D.C.

SALZMAN: You know, I support our president. He's our president. I support our country.

ELLIOTT: Salzman says she wasn't always with Trump but has come around. She says his foreign policy is all about manipulation.

SALZMAN: I mean, I don't care if you like him or not. That man is just so brilliant and so manipulative. He is so good at doing exactly what it is he needs to do to get the job done. We're over here talking about this. He's already working on something else, and we won't even know about it because we're talking about this. And that's his intention.

ELLIOTT: James Zumwalt is the fourth generation in his family to be awarded a Bronze Star, and he worked on Capitol Hill for a Republican congressman. He says it was unsettling watching Trump and Putin in Helsinki.

ZUMWALT: All those presidents that we revere in the past - you know, Washington, the Founding Fathers, Reagan against the USSR, Roosevelt during World War II - what they all did was they stood up against adversaries for the American people. And admittedly, when I first saw the Helsinki press conference, I kind of cringed.

ELLIOTT: Salzman had a different reaction.

SALZMAN: (Laughter) I thought, I wonder if they promised to say that to each other on camera and talk about it later.

ELLIOTT: Both of these veterans consider Russia an enemy and don't dispute that the Kremlin has interfered in U.S. elections, but they support a dialogue.

ZUMWALT: Isn't it better to talk to both our allies and our adversaries?

ELLIOTT: Zumwalt does not agree with the characterization that the president appeared weak as the White House backtracked on his comments. He says Trump brings a different kind of political calculus, and it's better to judge the results by his actions than his words.

ZUMWALT: You know, the bolstering of NATO, the weapons to Ukraine and Georgia, it doesn't matter what he says, what nice things he says about Putin in front of Putin in the same room at a press conference. What matters to me is, legislatively, what is he doing to promote freedom and democracy and defend our interests?

SALZMAN: Ain't that right?

ELLIOTT: Trump supporters in this conservative region tend to view what he does as part of a bigger ploy, often referencing "The Art Of The Deal." Republican Greg Merk is a candidate for state representative. A former military pilot, Merk says, don't underestimate Trump's negotiating skills.

GREG MERK: You know, make no mistake; Donald Trump has this ability to really throw people off balance. And I understand, you know, Putin and the head of the KGB - former head of the KGB. But Donald Trump is somebody who can push people off their - get them off of their game very quickly.

ELLIOTT: Navy veteran Michelle Caldwell says everything the president does is calculated. She's giving him the benefit of the doubt for now.

MICHELLE CALDWELL: You know, sometimes in business you have to try different strategies. I think he's done a really good job of trying a complete different strategy than we've ever used before.

ELLIOTT: But it's a strategy that continues to divide the country. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Pensacola, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MARTINIS' "HUNG OVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.