CNN

With President Trump facing legal peril, DeSantis steps out and sharpens attacks

Mar 23, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: Apr 4, 2023, 3:10 pm

Former President Donald Trump (left) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are pictured here in a split ima...

Former President Donald Trump (left) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are pictured here in a split image. Photo credit: Getty Images.

(left)

(CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has stylized himself as a political brawler willing to take on all comers, from Disney and the corporate media to high school students wearing masks.

But his brewing battle with Donald Trump was for months a one-sided affair.

That changed this week when DeSantis for the first time leaned into the burgeoning rivalry in earnest. In public remarks, DeSantis goaded the former president’s legal troubles and invited comparisons between their leadership style and character. He doubled down by granting a lengthy interview to Piers Morgan, a noted Trump supporter-turned-critic, and didn’t push back as the British television host assailed the former president as untruthful and intensely jealous of his one-time ally’s political success.

The two laughed over Trump’s attempts to nickname DeSantis.

“You can call me whatever you want,” DeSantis said in an excerpt of the interview published in the New York Post, “just as long as you also call me a winner.”

DeSantis until now has mostly brushed off questions about his 2024 aspirations even as he makes moves toward a likely campaign for president. The noticeable shift in approach comes as the extraordinary legal troubles surrounding Trump have intensified in recent days, with the possibility of an indictment hanging over the former president and bringing unprecedented uncertainty to the looming GOP nominating contest.

It also follows a coordinated campaign by Trump’s allies over the weekend to pressure potential Republican rivals to stand by the former president as a Manhattan grand jury considers evidence related to a hush-money payment scheme to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

Other Republican presidential contenders came to Trump’s defense by leveling accusations at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the Democrat readying a decision on whether to indict Trump. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is still weighing a bid, told ABC News, “It just feels like a politically charged prosecution here.” Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, a longshot candidate, called the grand jury probe “a textbook case of politicizing prosecutorial power.” And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said it was “more about revenge than justice.”

DeSantis, though, opted to poke the bear, telling a Panama City, Florida, crowd on Monday that he doesn’t “know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.” Hours later, with Trump surrogates publicly fuming on social media, DeSantis stood by the quip during his interview with Morgan. He went on to tout the no-nonsense management of his administration, pandemic response and 19-point victory last fall — encouraging a contrast with Trump’s chaotic four years in office that culminated with a loss to Joe Biden.

It was enough for Morgan to declare in the New York Post that the Florida governor had “finally taken the gloves off,” and Trump and his allies responded as if that was the case. Trump adviser and spokesman Jason Miller tweeted that DeSantis “has finally shown his true colors. An establishment Never Trumper who despises the MAGA base and was faking it the entire time.”

Yet DeSantis’ criticism of Trump remained mostly implicit and shrouded in subtext — an uncharacteristically reserved counter punch for a political figure who once cosplayed as a “Top Gun” pilot to drive home the point he will “never back down from a fight” and ended his reelection campaign by suggesting he was created by God to be a fighter.

Morgan’s frequent attempts to bait DeSantis into attacking Trump — at one point comparing their relationship to Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster — were mostly met with familiar dodges. DeSantis suggested that is unlikely to change even as he and Trump appear headed for a collision course.

“If I were to run, I’m running against Biden,” DeSantis said. “Like (Trump and DeSantis) are competing for the Republican, potentially, I get that, but ultimately you know the guy I’m gonna focus on is Biden because I think he’s failed the country. I think the country wants a change. I think they want a fresh start and a new direction and so we’ll be very vocal about that.”

Trump, meanwhile, has for weeks escalated attacks on DeSantis, characterizing the governor and former ally as ungrateful, disloyal and a mediocre political talent boosted by Florida’s sunshine. On Monday, Trump leveled a series of personal attacks against DeSantis and elevated a photo that suggested DeSantis had behaved inappropriately with teenage girls while teaching history in Georgia in his early 20s, an image the former president previously shared on social media.

“It gets to the point where you’re a candidate by default and you have to engage,” one DeSantis adviser told CNN. “The governor can’t afford to be marginalized from the get go. He clearly made the calculus it was time to push back.”

Even as DeSantis sharpens his critiques of Trump, he is pivoting elsewhere toward the former president as he inches closer to a bid for the White House. He has so far avoided outlining any significant policy differences between himself and his former ally-turned-future rival. Instead, DeSantis has ditched some long-held beliefs in favor of adopting Trump’s more populist leanings.

Once an outspoken proponent of arming Ukraine as a member of Congress, DeSantis recently characterized Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe as a “territorial dispute,” aligning himself with Trump. (After considerable blowback from his party, DeSantis told Morgan his words had been “mischaracterized” and clarified he believed “Russia was wrong to invade.”)

Earlier this month, he asserted, “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans,” a clear break from his days as a tea party Republican who supported privatization of Social Security and raising the retirement age to 70. Trump recently declared that entitlement programs shouldn’t be included in federal budget negotiations.

In his recent travel to early nominating states, DeSantis has also fashioned his likely candidacy on many of the most animating pillars of Trump’s first run for president, including immigration, attacking the media and questioning the security of elections. His moves against so-called “wokeness” in society are the ripples from Trump’s 2016 gripes against political correctness.

DeSantis’ advisers and allies believe the chief challenge for DeSantis is not differing himself from Trump on policy, but demonstrating to Republican primary voters that he can be more effective at enacting a platform. Trump, without the baggage, as some have offered.

Or, as Trump recently put it, “Whatever I want, he wants.”

To many Republican primary voters, Trump and DeSantis are viewed as politically aligned, leaving voters with a choice centered on electability and less on policy differences. In a recent CNN poll of potential GOP voters, 40% say they would most likely back Trump and 36% would vote for DeSantis. No other candidate reached double digits.

“What the Republican voters are going to look at at the end of the day is where is our best chance of winning because both men resonate with Republican voters on policy,” Chris Ager, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, told CNN in a recent interview. “If the policies are both good, then who has the best chance of winning and implementing them again? I think that’s going to be a bigger factor in many decisions.”

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With President Trump facing legal peril, DeSantis steps out and sharpens attacks