Trump's looming indictment causes his feud with DeSantis to boil over into insults and insinuations about a 'porn star' and 'underage' classmates
The Trump indictment news put DeSantis on the spot, given he's expected to run for president.
He criticized the investigation as political but also jabbed at Trump and seemed dismissive.
Trump landed a hard punch back, providing a preview of the 2024 nomination battle.
In recent days, as former President Donald Trump fumed over a forthcoming indictment and warned on Truth Social that he'd be "arrested" Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was with his family.
Despite mounting pressure from MAGA-world, the Republican governor Trump helped put into office didn't say anything about Trump over the weekend, not even on Twitter.
Instead, on Thursday he posed for pictures with his son, Mason, at the World Baseball Classic in Miami. On Saturday, wis wife, Casey DeSantis, posted a picture of herself embracing two of her three children, Madison and Mason, in a golf cart.
The pictures painted a contrast: DeSantis was attending to his young family while Trump was railing over an investigation that centered on hush money to an adult film actress with whom he allegedly had an affair during his third marriage.
On Monday, when DeSantis finally addressed Trump's expected indictment during a news conference in Panama City, Florida, he tore into Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, but also hit directly at Trump in a way that accentuated the contrast of the two men's social media posts over the weekend.
"I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair," DeSantis said.
Trumpworld was livid that DeSantis stayed silent for days — even as allies pressured him to speak out — only to eventually come out with a response that taunted Trump.
They attacked him on social media and ignored the other parts of DeSantis' statements on the indictment, including his lengthy attack on Bragg, whom DeSantis accused of creating a "manufactured circus" motivated by politics.
Trump himself hit back at DeSantis just hours later on Truth Social, taking direct aim at shattering the governor's carefully crafted, family-friendly image.
He warned the governor that he himself could someday be the target of "fake stories" from women, "underage" classmates, or "possibly men." DeSantis hasn't had any such allegations, but Trump has maintained that he and the adult film actress in question, Stormy Daniels, never had an affair.
"I'm sure he will want to fight these misfits just like I do!" Trump concluded in his Truth Social post. On Monday night, he went at DeSantis again, referring to polling that showed he had a 28-point lead over DeSantis in a hypothetical 2024 primary. Trump also drew his own contrast with DeSantis by highlighting his support for raising the eligibility age for Social Security while he was in the US House.
DeSantis continued his attacks after his Monday press appearance in an interview with Piers Morgan published Tuesday afternoon in the New York Post. He doubled down on his attacks about Daniels, saying: "There's a lot of speculation about what the underlying conduct is."
He also called out the "drama" in the Trump administration and underscored his family man image by saying he might not run for president because he had a young family. In a final blow, he mocked Trump's "DeSantimonious" nickname for him.
"I mean you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner," he said.
DeSantis faces a tightrope on how to go after Trump
The fight gives voters a preview of the 2024 race, assuming DeSantis announces his White House candidacy in the months ahead, once Florida's lawmaking session ends in May. Trump has conceded that DeSantis is his biggest rival, and has demonstrated he'll unrelentingly mock the governor over everything from his looks, to how he says his name, to his policy record.
How DeSantis handles the attacks could help or hurt him in the polls. DeSantis has made "never, ever back down from a fight" a big part of his political brand. He went after Disney World and other big corporations, fought federal public health officials and President Joe Biden over COVID-19 restrictions, moved to punish facilities over hosting drag shows where minors were present, and removed a progressive prosecutor.
But Trump is seen as the most formidable opponent of them all because he also does not back down from a fight, and he's not afraid to drag his opponents through the mud and make ferocious accusations, even or especially if they're untrue.
And Trump's base is likely to stick by him and recoil from anyone who attacks him. Alex Bruesewitz, founder and CEO of X Strategies, said MAGA voters were turned off from DeSantis' remarks on Monday when he said he had "real issues" to deal with in Florida after he was asked about Bragg's investigation.
"Ron DeSantis has a glass jaw as the last few weeks make clear," Bruesewitz told Insider. "He is being hit by all sides and is dropping in the polls. When both the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board and Steve Bannon are attacking you, you know you're in trouble. The past few days have been especially difficult for Ron."
2024 GOP candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur who repeatedly spoke out against the Manhattan DA's investigation, also criticized DeSantis' comments in a statement to Insider.
"The frustrating part to me is that Ron DeSantis will regularly take on national issues when it is is politically convenient," he said. "But when he can actually make a positive difference — whether that's the Silicon Valley bailout or the Trump indictment — he shuts up for political convenience. That's not leadership."
Until recently, DeSantis has taken a passive aggressive approach with Trump through holding public appearances that have gotten under his skin. In one instance, he broadcast an interview with a lawyer who represented Dominion Voting Machines in its defamation lawsuit against MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a Trump ally.
But not all GOP strategists saw a problem with DeSantis' response. Saul Anuzis, managing partner of political consulting group Coast to Coast Strategies, told Insider that DeSantis handled the question well on Monday because he contrasted himself with Trump while also calling the investigation politically motivated.
"It's in Trump's best interest not to agitate his potential allies. There has been virtually unanimous support for his position that this is a cheap political maneuver. He should be happy with that," Anuzis, who was also former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said.
Asked about the battle, DeSantis' political team pointed to the governor's comments Monday saying that he would not participate in helping Bragg with an extradition. While the governor cannot stop Trump's extradition from Florida, he could slow the process if Trump doesn't want to surrender voluntarily from Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Insider reported.
DeSantis didn't hold public appearances on Tuesday, though his direct hit on Trump in the New York Post landed in the afternoon. Tuesday morning, a radiant Casey DeSantis held a news conference in Tampa, seamlessly announcing an initiative to help Florida families with low earnings access needed supplies. If Trump caused any frazzlement in the Florida's first couple orbit, she gave no indication.
Sam Nunberg, who has had a falling out with Trump but advised him during his successful 2016 campaign, told Insider he thought DeSantis' response on Monday was smart: He excoriated Bragg, belittled Trump, and said he had his own battles to fight in Florida, including against Biden.
To underscore his point, he recalled an instance in 2013 in which Trump was preparing for an interview on ABC. Nunberg expected the reporter would ask Trump about Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas' citizenship and advised Trump to say that Cruz was eligible to run for president, though he was born in Canada.
"He looked at me baffled and said, 'Why would I defend him?'" Nunberg recounted. When the interview taped, Trump said: "I don't know the circumstances. I heard somebody told me he was born in Canada." Trump continued to enflame doubts about the issue during the 2016 nomination fight.
What lesson can DeSantis take from this? "It's not Ron's job to defend Donald and make Donald's problems his problems," Nunberg said.
March 21, 2023: This story has been updated following Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' interview with the New York Post.
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