The political rivalry between former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis reached a new level Tuesday, with the Republicans trading blows over claims made by Trump on social media about DeSantis’ behavior with students when he was a teacher at a Georgia school.
Although Trump did not directly make the allegations, he did share posts on his social media site, Truth Social, by supporters accusing DeSantis of “grooming” and “ephebophilia” — a sexual attraction to people in their mid- to late teens. Trump and his backers have provided no evidence to support the allegations.
“That’s not Ron, is it?” Trump wrote above one of his supporter’s posts. “He would never do such a thing!”
The spat comes amid rampant speculation that DeSantis will challenge Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination for president. DeSantis has not entered the race, and polls show Trump is still the front-runner.
Trump’s posts reference a photo of DeSantis that appears to be from when he was 23 and a high school teacher at a boarding and day school in Georgia. He’s surrounded by young women in the shot, one of whom is holding a brown glass bottle. The photo first surfaced on a blog run by a Democratic political organization.
The New York Times reported last year that students remember DeSantis attending at least two parties at which people drank alcohol. The parties were after graduation, the Times reported, anonymously attributing the information to two students. That would mean the photo was taken in 2002.
DeSantis fired back this week when asked about Trump’s posts.
“I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden,” DeSantis said Wednesday at a news conference in Ocala.
“I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”
Unfounded or not, the allegations by Trump supporters that DeSantis groomed students speaks to a particular moment in conservative American politics. The term refers to an adult attempting to gain the trust of a younger person to manipulate them into sexual abuse. It’s been used often in recent months by conservative activists on social media — including those on DeSantis’ own team — often in reference to LGTBQ people who interact with children.
“Here is Ron DeSanctimonious grooming high school girls with alcohol as a teacher,” read a meme reposted by Trump on Tuesday. (”Ron DeSanctimonious” is Trump’s nickname for the Florida governor.)
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There is no indication DeSantis groomed anyone. When asked for comment, a spokesperson referred a reporter to the governor’s comments at his Wednesday news conference.
This is not the first time Trump has made salacious allegations about a political rival. In 2016, when Trump first sought the Republican presidential nomination, he falsely linked the father of Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The posts were just the latest in a series of missives by Trump against DeSantis. A subsequent post from Tuesday criticized DeSantis for voting against a bill when he was a U.S. representative that provided funding for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and some amnesty for young people who entered the country illegally. DeSantis was one of 112 Republican “no” votes as the party struggled in 2018 to agree on a framework for immigration reform.
Trump also criticized DeSantis for applauding the arrest of some Trump supporters who participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. He reposted a screen grab from a 2021 Tampa Bay Times article in which the governor is quoted as saying, “I actually am glad to see some of these people being arrested from the D.C. thing, because I think the prosecutions will really make a difference.”
“What about ANTIFA & (Black Lives Matter), Ron?” Trump posted above the screen grab, referring to progressive groups often accused by the right of inciting riots.
DeSantis hasn’t responded to all of Trump’s posts specifically. But last month, when he was asked about the president’s criticism of how he handled the pandemic, the governor pointed to his reelection victory in 2022.
“Not only did we win reelection, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has had in the history of the state of Florida,” DeSantis said then. “That verdict has been rendered by the people of the state of Florida.”