Trump goes to war against DeSantis

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Former President Donald Trump publicly attacked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, releasing a rambling statement Thursday blasting the governor he helped make but who is now his chief rival to lead the Republican Party.

Just days before he’ll likely announce he’s running for president, Trump took credit for DeSantis’ success after endorsing him in 2018, belittled him as “average” and accused “Ron DeSanctimonious” of playing games by not announcing his 2024 presidential ambitions.

“He says, ‘I’m only focused on the Governor’s race, I’m not looking into the future.’ Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer,” Trump said in a statement and in a post on his social media platform Truth social.

Trump and DeSantis are on a 2024 collision course as the Florida governor’s national stock has risen, an ascent punctuated Tuesday night after DeSantis won reelection in Florida by nearly 20 points and Trump-backed candidates across the country largely underperformed.

DeSantis won Florida by historic margins in what was once the nation’s largest swing state. Conservative media institutions like Fox News have appeared to side with DeSantis, as has the New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid that ran a front page headline calling DeSantis “DeFuture” the day after the election.

“NewsCorp, which is Fox, the Wall Street Journal, and the no longer great New York Post, is all in for Governor Ron DeSanctimonious,” Trump said.

Trump also criticized DeSantis’ hands-off response to the pandemic, one of the governor’s top achievements among conservatives that boosted his national profile.

DeSantis is “an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations, who didn’t have to close up his state, but did, unlike other Republican Governors,” Trump wrote.

Trump has taken more subtle shots at DeSantis in recent weeks, including the new nickname. But Thursday night’s statement is a clear escalation of tension between Trump and a governor who increasingly poses a threat to the former president’s White House ambitions.

DeSantis, whose campaign did not return a request seeking comment, has so far not responded publicly to Trump’s chiding.

“I think that Ron is very clearly living rent free in the former president’s head,” said Stephen Lawson, a Georgia-based strategist who was communications director for DeSantis’ successful 2018 run for governor. “Ron has not said a single word and they think smartly that Tuesday’s huge win allows him to just keep talking about his record without having to acknowledge Trump.”

“It’s 1,000 percent the correct move,” Lawson said of DeSantis. “Trump just keeps throwing boomerangs.”

Trump’s most ardent supporters, however, are greeting the escalation with glee, saying that DeSantis deserves Trump’s ire because the governor hasn’t publicly announced his 2024 intentions.

“Sadly, everything President Trump says is true. Ron DeSantis owes his governorship to Donald Trump and challenging him in 2024 would be a treacherous act of disloyalty,” said Roger Stone, a long-time Trump adviser.

Trump’s endorsement played a huge role in DeSantis winning the 2018 GOP primary against former Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who was an early favorite. In his statement, the ex-president said he backed DeSantis because he “didn’t know” Putnam. On Thursday night, former Putnam advisers were caught off guard by being roped into the statement, but one said “even at the worst point Adam was not happy, but he never once said a bad thing about Trump.”

There are mixed responses to Trump’s escalation, according to a dozen people in Trump and DeSantis’ orbit. But even those who support the former president say the public criticism of a popular governor coming off a historic win seemed misguided.

“Obviously he is escalating. It is total shots fired,” said a Trump adviser who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “It is not what I would have done if it were totally up to me, but you can’t argue with Donald Trump’s tactics. They work. He is savage but effective. He was never going to stay restrained for long.”

Trump’s broadside comes after a crop of his hand-picked candidates had disappointing midterm showings, possibly upending Republican hopes to retake the Senate and giving the GOP, if they win the House, a much smaller majority than many anticipated. A key race in Georgia between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Trump-endorsed Republican challenger Herschel Walker is set to go to a runoff as Trump diverts attention with his feud with DeSantis.

Besides DeSantis’ overwhelming win, Florida Republicans won supermajorities in both the House and Senate, giving the governor nearly unchecked power to build and pass a policy platform that will further his national profile ahead of an anticipated 2024 announcement in late spring or summer of 2023.

For Republicans in Florida, Trump’s statement speaks to one thing: desperation.

“He is obviously threatened by a DeSantis presidential run,” said a longtime Florida Republican consultant given anonymity to openly discuss the former president and DeSantis. “And by doing this, I think he will lose a lot of his base support.”