MIAMI — Ron DeSantis offered some of his most forceful criticism of Donald Trump less than 24 hours after announcing his own presidential bid and after months of largely ignoring his chief rival for the GOP nomination.
The comments, made over the course of a 12-interview media blitz with conservative news outlets on Thursday, signaled that the Florida governor would start to engage more directly with Trump, who has spent months heckling DeSantis on social media and through campaign aides.
They also indicated how DeSantis plans to attack the former president, using subjects like Anthony Fauci and The Walt Disney Co. to paint him as less conservative and more liberal than when he first ran for office.
“I’ll tell you, I don’t know what happened to Donald Trump,” DeSantis told Tennessee-based talk radio host Matt Murphy. “This is a different guy today than when he was running in 2015 and 2016. And I think the direction he’s going with his campaign is the wrong direction.”
DeSantis in particular chided Trump for, in the governor’s words, “siding with Disney” during the ongoing dispute between the Florida leader and the entertainment company, which is a major employer in the state. Trump has mocked DeSantis for his fight with Disney, saying it has hurt the state’s economy.
“It seems like he’s running to the left,” said the governor, who in the same interview also knocked Trump’s position on abortion rights and his record on the national debt. “And I’ve always been somebody moored in conservative principles.”
Calibrating how often — and how harshly — to respond to Trump has been a longtime predicament for Republican politicians, many of whom have found that ignoring the attacks makes them look weak but often emerge the worse for wear when they do entangle with a man who revels in insults, many of them untethered to facts. No GOP candidate in the 2016 primary was able to successfully navigate the challenge, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.
In a statement, the Trump campaign dismissed DeSantis’ attacks, saying he was trying to distract attention from a faulty campaign launch Wednesday on Twitter, during which the governor was unable to speak for more than 20 minutes as the online platform kept crashing.
“Ron DeSantis can’t run away from his disastrous, embarrassing, and low-energy campaign announcement,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung. “Rookie mistakes and unforced errors — that’s who DeSantis is, and now he’s fumbling around to find a way to salvage his dying campaign. So he’s decided to go the anti-MAGA route. Very sad!”
DeSantis enters the GOP primary trailing Trump by a significant margin, according to a bevy of recent polling. A CNN survey released this week found Trump receiving 53% support among Republicans, more than double the 26% of GOP voters who back the governor.
Governor had avoided criticism, no more
In light of that deficit, allies of the governor have been waiting months for him to start firing back against Trump, cognizant that it was awkward to do so before he became a candidate, but now eager to see him more forcefully defend his record.
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DeSantis had said repeatedly that he was focused on Florida’s legislative session, and made only passing references to Trump when speaking of the former president at all.
But the governor shed his hesitation to engage on Thursday, with a forcefulness that might have caught even some of his supporters by surprise.
Trump, DeSantis told conservative talk show host Glenn Beck during another interview, “did great for three years as president.” And then, he said, the coronavirus pandemic happened.
“When he turned the country over to Fauci in March of 2020, that destroyed millions of lives,” DeSantis said.
The comment was quickly amplified online by DeSantis aides, who spent much of Thursday arguing with Trump officials over the pandemic and how both the governor and former president responded to it. That directness was in and of itself new from the governor’s aides, who had previously shied away from arguments with Trump aides and surrogates.
“What’s WORSE than caving to Fauci?” tweeted DeSantis campaign spokesperson Christina Pushaw, referencing a news story about Trump urging not to lift lockdowns during the pandemic. “Caving to pressure from the utterly corrupt corporate media.”
Whether the criticism will successfully convince Republican voters is not yet clear. Trump was regularly attacked as insufficiently conservative on issues ranging from abortion rights to gun control during the 2016 primary, but managed to overcome those doubts through force of personality and a promise to fight for Republican principles while in office. His policies as president were broadly popular with GOP voters.
The governor had not totally avoided criticizing Trump before this week, including when he chided him earlier this month for suggesting the state’s new six-week abortion ban was too strict. During the balance of his interviews, DeSantis focused on his national agenda, repeatedly outlining his support for ending “woke” overreach in government.
The governor expressed his criticisms of Trump as a response to his rival’s attacks, arguing that he’s only defending himself and his record.
He added, however, that he’s happy to draw contrasts with Trump where necessary.
“He’s running attacks, attacking me for voting against an omnibus spending bill that he signed when he was president,” DeSantis told RealClearPolitics during a Wednesday interview. “Absolutely, I think he should not have signed those omnibus spending bills. He added almost $8 trillion to the debt in a four-year period of time. I’m happy to be on the conservative side of that debate because I think our debt’s gone up way too much.”