DeSantis vs Trump: The Republican frenemies edging towards a potential 2024 face-off

Two have split on Covid-19 vaccines as Florida governor’s profile has risen, writes Eric Garcia

Friday 28 January 2022 18:57
<p>Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump discussing the Covid crisis in the White House. Both men are thought to want to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a more permanent basis </p>

Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump discussing the Covid crisis in the White House. Both men are thought to want to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a more permanent basis

Allies of former Governor Ron DeSantis are downplaying rumors of a potential rivalry between him and former President Donald Trump, despite widespread reports of tension between the two.

Conservatives have hailed Mr DeSantis for his lax approach to Covid-19 during the last two years. Last week, when CPAC announced its speakers, it billed Mr DeSantis as “America’s governor”.

Plenty of political observers took note of how, in an interview with the Ruthless podcast, which is co-hosted by former Mitch McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes, Mr DeSantis criticised the federal government’s response to Covid-19.

“I was telling Trump, stop the flights from China because we didn’t know what we were dealing with but I never thought that in February, early March that it would lead to locking down the country,” he said earlier this month.

“And I think knowing now what I know then, if that was a threat earlier, I would have been much louder about trying to say this is not.”

But a Florida GOP lobbyist and ally of Mr DeSantis said the swipes were not meant to hit Mr Trump.

“He wasn’t hitting Trump directly, didn’t even mention his name. He was really referencing Fauci if you listen to the podcast,” he said.

Mr Trump has also appeared to take subtle swipes at Mr DeSantis for his stance on vaccination. Mr Trump told right-wing provocateur Candace Owens, who has taken a hard line against vaccines, that Republican politicians should disclose their vaccination status.

“They don’t want to say it because they’re gutless,” Mr Trump, who has indicated he has been both vaccinated and boosted, told Ms Owens.

“You gotta say it, whether you had it or not. Say it. But the fact is that I think the vaccines saved tens of millions throughout the world. I’ve had absolutely no side effects.”

Mr Trump’s words were seen largely as a shot across the bow against Mr DeSantis, who has failed to disclose whether he had received a Covid-19 booster vaccine.

“So that’s something that I think people should make their own decisions on. I’m not going to let that be a weapon for people to use. I think that’s a private matter,” he said earlier this month, Florida Politics reported.

Anthony Scaramucci, Mr Trump’s former communications director-turned-critic, said that Mr Trump is going after Mr DeSantis in a way that is similar to his attempt to target Joe Biden by having Ukraine dig up dirt on Mr Biden’s son Hunter, which triggered Mr Trump’s first impeachment.

“He’s looking at the field. He’s looking at DeSantis as the one who is likely to win,” Mr Scaramucci told The Independent. “That’s why he’s hitting him so hard.”

Mr Scaramucci added that a feud with Mr Trump would be a test and that if he does not fold in the way that Senator Ted Cruz did, Mr DeSantis could come out on top.

Lara Trump puts pressure on DeSantis to back Trump in 2024

The two Republicans are by far the most dominant forces in Republican politics right now. A recent Harvard/Harris poll found that 57 per cent of GOP primary voters in a primary matchup would back Mr Trump while Mr DeSantis would wrangle 12 per cent. Vice President Mike Pence would come in third at 11 per cent.

While Mr DeSantis has been wary about challenging Trump publicly, other Republicans – such as his former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley – have explicitly ruled out running against the former president. South Dakota Gov Kristi Noem, who like Mr DeSantis took a lax approach on Covid-19 and kept her state open and has intimated she took an even less strict approach than the Florida governor, has said she counted on the former president running.

Meanwhile, Sen Ted Cruz, the runner-up in the 2016 GOP primary who beat Mr Trump in Iowa said in November that while Mr Trump would be “very, very formidable,” he also told CBS that “I came in second. There’s a long history of runners-up being the next nominee.”

The feud comes despite the two men having had mutually beneficial relationship for years. Mr DeSantis served a relatively unremarkable tenure as a member of Congress and a member of the House Freedom Caucus from 2013 to 2018. When he tried running for Senate in 2016, he backed out to run for reelection after Senator Marco Rubio jumped back into the race.

Then, Mr DeSantis morphed into one of Mr Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress. During his campaign for governor, he slammed the Republican Agriculture Commissioner, Adam Putnam, for criticising Mr Trump after a tape revealed Mr Trump bragging about sexual assault.

Mr DeSantis’s frequent Fox News appearances defending Mr Trump and touting his MAGA bona fides earned him the president’s endorsement. Mr DeSantis even released a campaign ad with his daughter building a mock wall on the US-Mexico border. The gambit worked when Mr DeSantis beat Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum that November in a tight race.

But one Republican consultant close to Mr DeSantis says he knows Mr Trump would beat him. At the same time, he said that he’s long forgotten that the former president endorsed him.

“He’s his own person,” he told The Independent anonymously, to speak candidly. At the same time, he said that the supposed feud is much ado about nothing, it’s just that Mr DeSantis would never come out and outright say he would not run.

“He’s never going to go out and say, hey I’m a subservient guy,” he said.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Mr DeSantis took a lax approach, mostly keeping the state open and prohibiting localities in the state from enforcing mask mandates. The approach made him beloved by Republicans.

But a Florida GOP lobbyist and ally of Mr DeSantis said these efforts were not a ploy to become president.

“He was doing it because that’s what he truly believed in. If you know anything about Ron, he’s a very dogmatic guy when he believes in something,” he said. At the same time, the lobbyist said that the dust-up is driven by disgruntled Trump staffers.

Rather, the lobbyist said that Mr DeSantis is not indicating whether he would seek the presidency because he is trying to seek reelection but is also trying to raise $150m for his war chest.

“Privately, he’s told Trump that he’s not going to run against him, so all of these presidential candidates want to see what Trump’s gonna do and whether the Republican electorate tires of Trump before the presidential primaries start to get into full effect,” he said.

“Our goal is to get to $150m. He did that in order to ward off opposition not knowing what the future would hold. He’s obviously well-funded. He’s focused on winning governor because here’s the deal: President is not an option if you don’t win governor. It’s one step at a time.”

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