Trump-DeSantis tensions ratchet up

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The long-simmering tensions between former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are reaching a boiling point ahead of a potential 2024 primary clash.

Trump has griped behind the scenes for months about DeSantis's rapid political rise, including chatter about a future White House bid. But the complaints from the former president have only grown louder, raising concerns among some Republicans about a looming brawl between two GOP heavyweights.

"President Trump is the one clearly picking a fight here, and it's a fight that's too early and unnecessary," said Sam Nunberg, a former adviser to Trump who stressed that he is neutral in a dustup between Trump and DeSantis. "We're not in Republican primary season. This is a fight for mid-2023. It's not a fight to start having in 2022."

Still, Nunberg added, "If Donald Trump believes he is punching down when he's attacking Ron DeSantis, then why do it?"

The tensions have come into sharper focus in recent days. An article published on Sunday by The New York Times offered a detailed accounting of an increasingly confrontational relationship between Trump and DeSantis.

Likewise, a story published by Axios on Monday reporting that Trump has been privately disparaging DeSantis as "dull" and lacking in "personal charisma" found itself front and center on the conservative website Drudge Report.

And just last week, Trump appeared to take a thinly veiled shot at DeSantis for refusing to say publicly whether he has received his COVID-19 booster shot. In an interview with the conservative One America News Network, the former president slammed "gutless" politicians who won't reveal their booster status, a comment that was widely viewed as aimed at the Florida governor.

"The answer is yes, but they don't want to say it, because they're gutless," Trump said. "You got to say it. Whether you had it or not, say it."

Trump's frustration with DeSantis stems in part from the governor's refusal to say publicly that he won't challenge Trump for the 2024 Republican nod if the former president decides to make another run for the White House. Several other would-be contenders have already done so, while DeSantis has largely skirted the question in public.

Trump is also said to be irked by what he sees as DeSantis's lack of deference. A former congressman, DeSantis won the 2018 Republican nomination for governor after Trump endorsed him over a better-known opponent, former Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

While DeSantis's political brand in many ways mirrors Trump's combative style, he's also begun to carve out his own reputation, notably as a staunch opponent of COVID-19 mandates and restrictions.

In a recent interview on the conservative "Ruthless" podcast, DeSantis said that he regretted not pushing back more aggressively when Trump advised Americans to stay home in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I was probably the first governor in January of 2020 to call for travel restrictions from China. I supported President Trump when he did that," DeSantis said. "But we have to take a step back and acknowledge that those travel restrictions just didn't work."

But DeSantis has also been careful to avoid direct confrontation with Trump, especially given the fact that he's facing reelection this year and needs to maintain the support of the former president's loyal voter base. In the interview with "Ruthless," DeSantis dismissed the notion that his relationship with Trump had soured, blaming the media for fueling such rumors.

"You cannot fall for the bait," he said. "You know what they're trying to do, so just don't take it. Just keep on keeping on. We need everybody united for a big red wave in 2022. We've got to fight the left, and not only fight, but beat the left. And that's what we're doing in Florida."

And even in saying that he wished he had spoken out more aggressively against Trump's early calls for coronavirus restrictions, DeSantis blamed "people like" Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for advising Trump on his early response to the pandemic.

Still, DeSantis's appeal among Republicans - including Trump's base - is clear. Ford O'Connell, a Florida-based GOP strategist and former congressional candidate, said the governor has been successful in taking aspects of Trump's political brand and making them his own, especially amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"What he's done is he's taken Donald Trump's America First playbook and crafted it as a Florida First playbook," O'Connell said.

"If you had told me that Ron DeSantis would display more political courage than Greg Abbott, I wouldn't have believed it," he added, referring to the Republican governor of Texas. "The idea that DeSantis gave all the other Republicans a backbone and cover to do what's best for their states is why conservatives are rewarding him now."

One Republican consultant with ties to Florida said that part of the interest in DeSantis as a future presidential candidate stems from the perception among many in the party that the Florida governor is effectively "Trump without the baggage."

"He's a little more polished, I think. He's got the Harvard credentials, he served in the military, he's the governor of the third largest state, but he can still speak the language of the MAGA crowd," the consultant said. "With Trump, there's still a lot of drama, so I think it probably worries him that there's this other guy who's getting a lot of attention."

To be sure, DeSantis has tried to tamp down speculation about his ambitions for 2024. He officially kicked off his 2022 reelection bid in November and has said that he's focused on the governor's mansion.

Some Republicans have also sought to dismiss talk of a budding feud between Trump and DeSantis. Giancarlo Sopo, a Republican media strategist who worked on the Trump campaign's national Hispanic advertising in 2020, said the recent news stories about the tensions were part of an effort to shift attention away from President Biden's political woes.

"The 'Trump vs. DeSantis' stories are not a coincidence. They're a Beltway concoction meant to distract from Biden's disastrous presidency," Sopo tweeted. "Don't take the bait."

Regardless, DeSantis looks in many ways more like a budding candidate for national office than someone content on remaining in the governor's mansion. His political committee has amassed nearly $70 million.

And in his annual State of the State address last week, DeSantis repeatedly slammed the federal government over coronavirus restrictions and mandates while proclaiming that his administration "was right" and the feds "were wrong" in their approach to the pandemic.

DeSantis's popularity among Republicans is also reflected in polling. While surveys of the potential 2024 GOP primary field show him running a distant second behind Trump, he has routinely scored double-digit support and gains significant ground when Trump is taken out of the running.

There's also plenty of time between now and the start of the 2024 primaries for DeSantis to close the gap. Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said that while Trump remains the front-runner for now, that may not necessarily be the case in another two years.

"Right now, things do look pretty good for DeSantis politically, but I still think there's a ranking and it's Trump first then currently, as of today, DeSantis," Jewett said. "But we don't know that that will be the case for long. Historically, early front-runners fade."

Brett Samuels contributed reporting.