Former President Trump and his allies think they have found the chink in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) armor.
Trump and those around him have recently sought to paint DeSantis as an opportunist and flip-flopper. It’s the common thread in a number of recent Trump attacks — on topics including Social Security, Ukraine and even COVID.
In a speech in Iowa early this week, Trump accused DeSantis of wanting to “decimate” Social Security.
After DeSantis issued a statement on Ukraine that included the assertion that the war was a “territorial dispute” with no “vital” U.S. interests at stake, Trump — who holds a position that is broadly similar — accused DeSantis of having mimicked him.
Meanwhile, on COVID, Trump has sought to narrow the perception that there was any meaningful difference in approach between the Florida governor’s actions on the pandemic and his own.
On each of these points, Trump does have legitimate material to work with.
DeSantis, while a congressman, backed nonbinding measures that would have raised the retirement age to 70 — though he now says he would not “mess” with Social Security.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, DeSantis was critical of then-President Obama for the supposed weakness of his response. DeSantis advocated arming Ukraine at that time.
And on COVID, DeSantis did indeed announce a lockdown of his state in the early days of the pandemic — even though he went on to become a fierce critic of many COVID-related restrictions.
DeSantis has for the most part avoided responding to Trump’s baiting — though when a Trump-backing super-PAC filed an ethics complaint against him on Wednesday, a DeSantis spokesperson called it “frivolous and politically motivated.”
The Florida governor has been reluctant to say anything openly about whether he will enter the race, even though all signs suggest he will.
When it comes to Trump, DeSantis has mostly traded in subtler jabs, such as implicit references to the chaos and staff in-fighting that typically surround Trump.
“If you look at my administration,” DeSantis said during a recent event in Iowa, “part of the reason we’re able to do so well, we’re not leaking to the media. We don’t have palace intrigue; we don’t have any drama. It’s just execution every single day. And we end up beating the left every single day.”
But some Trump allies do believe the former president’s attacks are hitting their mark — in part simply by disrupting the otherwise positive treatment of DeSantis in conservative-leaning media outlets.
“There was no negative conservative messaging on DeSantis six months ago,” one GOP strategist close to Trump World told this column. “This is the first time he has taken any incoming at all, and I think Trump is landing real shots on him.”
This source also contended that such attacks were effective even when Trump and DeSantis were broadly similar policy-wise, as is the case with the war in Ukraine.
The former president wants it known that, even though the two men have landed on the same page, he got there first.
“That’s a very effective attack,” the Trump World source said. “Ron DeSantis is the cover band, the tribute act. Why would you want the tribute act when you can have the real thing.”
Michael Caputo, a longtime friend and adviser to Trump who is now an executive with Americano Media, noted that on Ukraine, “Trump is saying the same thing he has always said, and DeSantis has switched. Now, why has he switched, that’s not clear. I’m sure that will come out. But his position is completely different than it was a few years ago.”
Despite Caputo’s long association with Trump, however, he cautioned against suggesting that DeSantis would be fatally wounded by such charges.
Caputo noted that attacks from one candidate accusing another candidate of being a flip-flopper have been a near-permanent feature of primary campaigns.
“I have worked for politicians who have changed over time,” he said. “The question is, how short of a time and how much of a change? The Republican primary voter has a high tolerance for change, just not if it happened yesterday on a fundamental issue.”
If DeSantis enters the race, he can defend his changes of position as a response to shifting events — or note that Trump himself has hardly been a paragon of consistency.
Years before seeking and winning the White House in 2016, for example, Trump had expressed supportiveness of abortion rights and looked favorably on universal healthcare.
For now, it’s clear that DeSantis is easily the most serious rival to Trump — despite the presence of former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley in the race and the fact that other big names could join the contest, including former Vice President Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In a CNN/SSRS poll released earlier this week, DeSantis was within four points of Trump with Republicans nationwide.
Results like that lead some within the GOP to see the vigor of Trump’s attacks on the Florida governor as a backhanded acknowledgement of the threat he poses.
Matt Mackowiak, the chair of the Travis County, Texas, GOP, when asked about the effectiveness of Trump’s attacks said: “I think the two best ways to judge that is, first, is he forcing DeSantis to respond? To this point, he really hasn’t. And, are these hits affecting DeSantis in any of the polls? We are not seeing that.”
In the end, Mackowiak added: “What it signals most to me is that Trump’s team is concerned about DeSantis.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.