There was a time when President Donald Trump could turn on Fox News at any given hour and there was a good chance Ron DeSantis would be on it, defending the White House or casting doubt on special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Case in point: Trump once tuned into his favorite network while on Air Force One and caught a segment featuring DeSantis, then a congressman. The president was so pleased with the performance, he tweeted that DeSantis “would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!”
Floridians followed Trump’s advice and elected DeSantis governor last year. Then, almost overnight, he disappeared from the network. DeSantis has graced Fox’s airwaves just once in 2019 — a September interview about Hurricane Dorian with conservative commentator Sean Hannity. Trump and Washington politics never came up.
DeSantis’ absence from Fox News is a drastic shift in media strategy. DeSantis’ allies say it’s intentional, allowing the governor to avoid questions that could suck him into polarizing partisan battles and divert him from his new job of governing 21 million residents.
“Gov. DeSantis regularly speaks to Florida media on a weekly basis about issues that are germane to his stewardship as the state’s highest elected official,” his spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said. “That will continue to be his focus.”
It’s smart for a governor to sidestep national political fights, said Adam Goodman, a longtime media consultant for Florida Republicans, and it seems to be working. Early in his first term, DeSantis has ridden a spate of positive reaction to his proposals on the environment and teacher pay to become one of the country’s most popular governors.
“If I had to lay out a branding game plan for Ron DeSantis as a relatively new member of the gubernatorial class, I would take the plan they’ve been on and double down,” Goodman said. "Build a resume of achievement, which is something public leaders are in short supply of these days. Then, he can say he’s all action, less talk.”
But DeSantis’ exodus from the national airwaves comes at the most perilous moment of the Trump presidency. As the impeachment investigation marches forward in the House of Representatives, DeSantis is no longer on the front lines defending Trump, who is known to keep tabs on who has his back — and how they perform on TV.
When speaking to Florida reporters, DeSantis is plainly annoyed if he’s asked to weigh in on his White House friend. He’s above Beltway bickering, he now insists. He brushes aside inquires into national controversies, even when they involve him. At a recent news conference in Palm Harbor, he shut down questions about Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the two arrested Soviet-born businessmen and associates of Rudy Giuliani who donated to DeSantis’ campaign.
As a member of Congress, DeSantis served on the House Judiciary Committee, the next venue for the impeachment hearings. It’s a role that would have kept DeSantis in front of cable news cameras for weeks and under close scrutiny from Trump, just as it has for U.S. Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Elise Stafanik or New York.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a close confidant to Florida’s governor and the president, said DeSantis gave up his national profile to focus on governing. But the two still talk often to strategize impeachment counter punches.
“Just because Ron DeSantis is no longer the tip of the spear on impeachment, doesn’t mean he’s not advancing the Trump agenda in Florida,” said Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
It wouldn’t be the first time DeSantis distanced himself from the president to gain a political edge. After winning the nomination — thanks in no small part to Trump’s endorsement — DeSantis pushed back against Trump’s wild claims that Democrats inflated the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria to make him look bad.
It was a shrewd political move given the Puerto Rican influence in Florida elections, but Trump was nevertheless displeased with DeSantis’ defection, Politico reported at the time.
To understand just how significant DeSantis’ absence from Fox News is, it’s important to remember how vital the network was to the Republican’s rise from unknown Jacksonville-area congressman to Florida’s most powerful elected leader.
From 2017 through much of 2018, rarely a week went by when DeSantis wasn’t on Fox News. As an Ivy League-trained lawyer with military experience, the GOP and Fox News heavily leaned on DeSantis to respond to the latest twists in the Mueller investigation. He was a frequent guest on Fox & Friends — on which he announced his campaign for governor — as well as the Ingraham Angle and Hannity, some of Trump’s favorite shows.
The payoff came when Trump, after seeing DeSantis on Fox News, tweeted an endorsement that immediately turned DeSantis into a viable contender in the Florida governor’s race. Months later, Trump christened DeSantis and Gaetz “absolute warriors” during a free-wheeling call-in to Fox & Friends.
Unlike DeSantis, Florida’s two U.S. Senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, continue to make the rounds on Fox News, other cable news networks and the Sunday morning political shows. While these appearances can begin with a discussion on China, trade policy or the issue du jour, the conversation almost always circle back to the president.
It’s these kinds of interactions DeSantis has successfully averted, while Rubio and Scott dutifully toe the party’s Trumpian line.
“In Florida, what people say to me is, ‘Support the president. Help the president,' ” Scott told Fox’s America’s Newsroom last week.
So far, there are no public signs that DeSantis’ self-imposed exile has irked Trump World. The two appeared side-by-side at a rally in Sunrise last week, where Trump needled DeSantis about his physique and gave him fashion advice.
“The best thing Gov. DeSantis can do for Donald Trump is do big, popular, successful things in Florida to show the brand of Republican politics works,” Goodman said. “The best way to support the president is making Republicanism more popular.”
Not too popular, though, the president joked in Sunrise. Trump told the crowd: “He better not be more popular in Florida than me.”
Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.