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Former President Donald Trump is rejecting pleas from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to postpone a campaign-style rally this weekend some 200 miles from the Miami suburb where an international search-and-rescue mission is excavating bodies from the site of a collapsed seaside condominium.
DeSantis’s office has "made a direct plea” to the former president’s team, calling on it to postpone the Saturday event in Sarasota. One Florida Republican bluntly said Trump and his team need to “read the room.”
“The governor is getting tested here as to how far he's going to be pushed before he breaks ranks with President Trump. And he has to be very careful because this is Trump country,” this source said. “The base loves the president. But they equally love Ron. It's a showdown going on right now.”
For now, the Trump camp is holding firm. “Nobody wants to cancel,” a source close to Trump told the Washington Examiner.
The dynamic between the former president and the governor is complicated. Trump is eyeing the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But so is DeSantis. Trump is both a fan of DeSantis and cognizant that the Florida leader has gained popularity with conservatives around the country for his handling of the coronavirus, with policies that were less restrictive than most other states. The situation is further complicated by a former president who might use the rally to send a message to a protege and a popular state executive who could use it to stand up to the former reality television star.
DeSantis, a 42-year-old former Navy officer, is threading a needle, with one eye on Trump and another on his reelection campaign.
“He does have to win reelection in 2022,” a former Trump aide said. “He can't piss off the president. But at the same time, he's reading the temperature correctly.”
And while Trump and DeSantis are close, they haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. The same goes for key players involved in the Sarasota drama.
Trump’s post-presidency operation is led by Susie Wiles, a former top Trump campaign official who was recruited to lead his political operations earlier this year. Wiles, a veteran political strategist in the Sunshine State, led Trump’s Florida team in the 2016 general election and DeSantis’s 2018 campaign for governor before the relationship soured.
"There's a huge rift between the DeSantis and Trump [camps]," a source said, pointing directly to the conflict over the rally. (Like others interviewed for this piece, the source was granted anonymity to speak candidly.)
DeSantis’s feud with Wiles is well-documented and flared up during last year's presidential race when she returned to Trump's side.
The governor at that time sought to dissuade donors from contributing to the Republican National Convention because of Wiles’s involvement in the planning, according to a report.
'Go for the jugular'
An operative suggested the bad blood between Wiles and DeSantis was clouding the decision to keep the rally on schedule, a source said. “Because Ron DeSantis doesn't want it, she's gonna make sure it happens,” this source said. “The governor supports the president, but something awful just happened in his state.”
This person added: “We can walk and chew gum at the same time. But right now, there's a Kumbaya moment. People need this. We need everybody to come together, we need to see that to start healing this country. And we saw a little bit of that today for the first time in five years. Today was the first day that people were like, ‘Maybe there's hope that our country can come back together again.’ Only for, on Saturday, the former president tearing the Band-Aid off: He's gonna go for the jugular.”
Setting up a clear contrast, President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee in 2024, will make the visit to Miami on Thursday to meet with families and first responders, joined by his wife, first lady Jill Biden. The 46th president has lost a wife, daughter, and adult son, and even his GOP critics say empathy is one of his strengths as a politician; Trump has rarely flashed the same trait in public, opting instead for brash rhetoric.
Advisers to the former president pleaded with him to show empathy last year as the coronavirus swept across the country, killing more than 600,000 people. It was a trait widely associated with then-candidate Biden, the race's eventual winner, whose first wife and young daughter died in a car crash in 1972, and whose son Beau died of cancer in 2015.
A source suggested Trump could hold a moment of silence for the community in Surfside, which is located 6 miles north of Miami and about one hour from the former president's Mar-a-Lago estate. In an email promoting the event, the Republican Party of Florida urged supporters on Tuesday to give directly to two local relief funds, according to a copy shared with the Washington Examiner.
DeSantis is one of the most popular politicians in the country, weathering the coronavirus pandemic and recently besting Trump in a presidential straw poll this month. DeSantis captured 74% to 71% for Trump. Last year, Trump secured 95% support.
Besides, Florida is Trump country, state Republicans said, suggesting any outrage from Democratic camps would do little to hurt Republican prospects.
Liz Harrington, a spokeswoman for Trump, defended the decision and said Trump had spearheaded the fundraising push.
"Like all Americans, President Trump sends his deepest condolences to those who've lost loved ones or been displaced by the terrible tragedy in Surfside. The event in Sarasota, however, is on the other side of the state, 3 1/2 hours away, approximately the same distance from Boston to New York, and will not impact any of the recovery efforts," Harrington said. "In fact, President Trump has instructed his team to collect relief aid for Surfside families both online and on-site at the Sarasota rally.”
Still, conceded one operative, if he were to advise DeSantis, he would say to steer clear.
“I would say, ‘Look, it's up to you.’ You've been right every single time, [but] you haven't won reelection in 2022 yet,” this person said. “You’ve got to stay on reelection 2022, and reelection 2022 says stick with Surfside and continue to manage the Sunshine State you have.”
Asked whether DeSantis planned to meet with Biden while the president is in Surfside on Thursday, Christina Pushaw, press secretary for the governor's office, said plans were still being worked out.
And Pushaw said she couldn’t speak to the dispute.
"As a state office, the Executive Office of the Governor doesn’t engage in political activity, so we wouldn’t have any visibility or insight to share about that,” Pushaw said.
A top political aide to DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.
Both DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio are on the ballot in 2022, elections that are “probably the most consequential in a generation,” this person said, putting on track the Republican Party to capture greater power.
Meanwhile, political opponents are eyeing DeSantis closely.
“You've got a governor who rolled the dice 10 times, and he's done well throughout the pandemic. He's been right. And now, not only is he drawing the admiration of Republicans, but he’s drawing the anger of Democrats,” this Florida operative said.
DeSantis has sought to inspire level-headed and compassionate leadership since the building collapsed. At least 12 people were dead and 149 still unaccounted for as the Surfside rescue effort entered its sixth day on Tuesday. No survivors have been discovered since the first morning of the tower’s partial collapse.
But one top state GOP official downplayed the rift.
“It is completely untrue that there is a rift between Gov. DeSantis and President Trump or between their teams," Helen Aguirre Ferre, the Florida Republican Party's executive director, said Wednesday. "To the contrary. Gov. DeSantis knows the Republican Party of Florida is working with the Trump team for the July 3rd rally in Sarasota in celebration of the founding of our country. In addition, we are encouraging all those who are attending to generously contribute to the victims of the tragedy at Surfside.” She also is a former DeSantis aide.
Response teams from Israel and Mexico are aiding the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rescue efforts. And Florida Republican and Democratic elected officials have been a constant presence at the site.
“We're talking about 150 people that are missing,” this former aide said. “There's massive loss of life. People are grieving. There's a lot of confusion as to what other buildings might be affected. Right now, the governor is down there almost every single day. What, you're gonna go across and do a rally and beat up Democrats? It’s tone-deaf."
And while Trump is a top cheerleader for DeSantis, he can also keep him in his place, reducing any presidential ambitions the Florida governor may have to the running-mate stakes.
Trump told Maria Bartiromo in April that he was open to putting him on his ticket should he choose to run for office again.
“He’s a friend of mine. I endorsed Ron, and after I endorsed him, he took off like a rocket ship,” Trump said. “A lot of people like that — you know, I’m just saying what I read and what you read — they love that ticket … certainly, Ron would be considered. He’s a great guy.”
Trump has given few clues about whether he intends to run in 2024, leaving Republican hopefuls with one eye on the former president’s prospects and another on their own.
In an interview with the Washington Examiner last week, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said he didn’t think DeSantis would challenge Trump, tamping down any speculation of a DeSantis run.
“[DeSantis] would be the first to say that if President Trump gets in, that he would win the nomination and would clear the field, and so, I don't ever see it being a 2016 primary scenario," said Meadows, who has joined the Conservative Partnership Institute since leaving office. “That being said, Gov. DeSantis won’t even — he’s asked over and over and over again every time I’m in his presence — he’s been asked, ‘Are you running in 2024?’”
In Ohio last week, Trump hosted his first campaign-style rally since leaving the White House. Saturday would be the second stop in a tour through the presidential battlegrounds.
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Original Author: Katherine Doyle