The looming indictment of Donald Trump on charges he paid hush money to an adult film actor has put Ron DeSantis in an awkward position, forced to choose between joining most Republicans in defense of a political rival and taking advantage of a damaging criminal allegation.
He tried to have it both ways Monday — and in doing so showed he might be stuck in a political dilemma for the foreseeable future.
Florida’s Republican governor blasted the investigation by Manhattan’s Democratic district attorney, saying during a question-and-answer session in Panama City that the potential charges were politically motivated and “fundamentally wrong.”
But a politician widely expected to run for president later this year also sought to distance himself from the nature of the allegations against the man who would be his top competition for the GOP nomination.
“Look, 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, amid laughter from some in the audience. “I can’t speak to that.”
Moments later, DeSantis again mentioned “porn star hush-money payments,” and added that the “real victims” of the charges were the citizens of New York and other areas with liberal prosecutors. He also denied that the state would resist any sort of extradition of Trump from Florida to New York, as some of the former president’s allies have urged, saying he didn’t want to get involved in a “manufactured circus.”
It wasn’t explicit criticism of Trump, but DeSantis’ answer Monday stood apart from how other GOP leaders — including former President Mike Pence and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — have responded to reports about potential indictments.
And it highlighted how the governor, even before he officially becomes a candidate, is seeking to both assure rank-and-file Republican voters sympathetic to Trump that he thinks the charges are bogus while simultaneously still quietly making the case that the former president shouldn’t be the GOP’s next presidential nominee.
“It’s a great balancing act that everyone in the race is going to have to deal with,” said Todd Reid, a veteran GOP strategist. “The president is still quite popular among the base and primary voters, but yet folks are in this race because they want to be an alternative to him. It’s going to be a struggle.”
DeSantis’ answer received Trump’s attention later Monday, when he lashed out at his one-time supporter with an ominous warning.
“Ron DeSanctimonious will probably find out about FALSE ACCUSATIONS & FAKE STORIES sometime in the future, as he gets older, wiser, and better known, when he’s unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman, even classmates that are ‘underage’ (or possibly a man!),” Trump wrote Monday on a social media website. “I’m sure he will want to fight these misfits just like I do!’’
DeSantis, who is married, has not been publicly accused of any sexual wrongdoing. Earlier this year, Trump baselessly accused the governor of sexual impropriety despite producing no evidence.
DeSantis’ answer and Trump’s pushback were indicative of the broader challenge the governor will face if Trump is indicted, especially if the pending case consumes more and more media attention in the weeks and months ahead.
The case rests on allegations that Trump paid adult film actor Stormy Daniels more than $100,000 before the 2016 election to remain quiet about a sexual encounter the two had a decade prior. Trump has denied the allegations.
On paper, the potential charges should bolster DeSantis’ cause, offering fresh proof to conservative voters that the former president, ensnared in a high-profile court case with a one-time porn star, carries too much baggage to win the 2024 White House race. DeSantis’ allies have already sought to present the governor as a like-minded alternative to Trump, who shares his vision for the country but wins more elections and produces less drama.
But bringing attention to the charges also risks making DeSantis look sympathetic to the district attorney’s case.
Even Pence, who only a week earlier condemned the former president for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, offered a full-throated defense of Trump only when asked over the weekend about the charges.
“I’m taken aback at the idea of indicting a former president of the United States at a, at a time when there’s a crime wave in New York City, the fact that the Manhattan D.A. thinks that indicting President Trump is his top priority, I think it just tells you everything you need to know about the radical left in this country,” Pence said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“It just feels like a politically charged prosecution here,” Pence said. “And I, for my part, I just feel like it’s just not what the American people want to see.”
Trump’s vice president made no mention of the substance of the charges against Trump.
McCarthy has gone further, accusing the Manhattan district attorney of “abusing his office” and called on GOP-led U.S. House committees to investigate any federal funds used in his investigation.