Trump's ire grows as DeSantis' popularity with Republicans takes off
By Gabby Orr and Steve Contorno, CNN
(CNN) -- In a matter of months, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has gone from being a shining example in Donald Trump's eyes of a MAGA leader molded in his image to an average politician who forgot his roots as he rose to Republican stardom.
People close to both men first noticed the palpable shift in Trump's posture toward DeSantis earlier this year as enthusiasm for the Florida governor swelled among donors and GOP operatives who praised his laissez-faire response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The more DeSantis' popularity soared, the more obsessed Trump became with receiving credit for his political celebrity.
In April, Trump had told Fox News that DeSantis would "certainly" be under consideration for the VP slot if he were to launch a third presidential campaign in 2024. By October, the former President was demanding that he publicly rule out a White House bid of his own.
"It's not that Trump is complaining about Ron... but he likes to remind Ron and others that he made him," said a person close to the former President, who added that Trump has been telling people around him that DeSantis could show more gratitude. Politico first reported the tension in their relationship last Friday.
A statement to CNN from Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich appeared to confirm Trump's obsession with receiving credit for DeSantis' success. Budowich said the former President's 2020 victory in Florida "paved the way for Republicans, including Governor Ron DeSantis, to sweep the state in 2022" and suggested that Trump "catapulted" then-Congressman DeSantis "into the Governor's Mansion" with his endorsement in the 2018 GOP primary for Florida governor.
"President Trump remains committed and supportive of Governor Ron DeSantis, who has been a champion for President Trump's America First agenda," said Budowich.
Though the two remain in regular contact, Trump has become increasingly irritated at DeSantis' refusal to publicly dismiss a 2024 bid of his own if the former President himself decides to run. Two people close to the situation said DeSantis has privately assured Trump and others that he has no intention of challenging him in a GOP presidential primary, but they noted that Trump won't be fully satisfied until the governor says so publicly.
"I don't think Trump appreciates the conundrum DeSantis is in. He wants him to say, 'I won't run,' but DeSantis isn't going to weigh in like that," said a former Trump aide, who suggested that DeSantis' current approach was politically savvy given his interest in securing another term as governor.
"It's a very smart view. Until you get reelected, don't start to have a conversation about 2024. If you're trying to ask people for your vote and you're leaning into presidential speculation, it makes it a lot harder," the aide said.
Though DeSantis has previously dismissed 2024 chatter about him as "nonsense," he has avoided taking the unequivocal public vow not to challenge Trump that other prospective Republican hopefuls have made.
Earlier this month, he officially filed to run for reelection for Florida governor in 2022 and he recently told Fox News host Sean Hannity that's where his focus lies.
"I'm not considering anything beyond doing my job," DeSantis said.
A spokesman for DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment. Helen Aguirre Ferré, the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida who has worked for Trump and DeSantis, told CNN, "I'm not going to get into that at all. I'll leave that for somebody else."
What sets DeSantis apart
Trump allies say it's the organic enthusiasm for DeSantis -- among deep-pocketed donors and the grassroots flank of the GOP -- that has fueled Trump's frustration with the governor, especially as it relates to 2024. When Trump's name was removed from a presidential straw poll at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February, it was DeSantis who led the pack with 43% support among the MAGA-friendly audience. Months later, at a September 13 press conference where he decried the Biden administration's pending Covid-19 vaccine mandate for large companies, DeSantis offered a bashful smirk when another state official pointed to someone sporting a "DeSantis 2024" T-shirt in the crowd.
And for months, billionaire Republican donors who bankrolled Trump have opened their checkbooks to boost DeSantis in his bid for a second term as Florida's governor.
Former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross donated $50,000 to DeSantis' campaign in April, according to publicly available campaign finance data, as did close Trump pal and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who contributed $250,000 in March. Interactive Brokers Group chairman Thomas Peterffy, whose last six-figure donation to the Trump Victory fund occurred in September 2017, also gave $250,000 to DeSantis in April. Peterffy told Bloomberg News earlier this fall that he would prefer to see DeSantis as the Republican presidential nominee in 2024 because he is less impulsive than Trump.
Nick Iarossi, a Florida lobbyist and DeSantis bundler, claimed Trump supporters are the ones reaching out to support DeSantis, not the other way around. Another person close to DeSantis, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, said he had personally witnessed instances where the governor had to tell donors "who are all excited about a presidential bid, 'No, I'm not focused on 2024.'"
"Everyone is talking about my governor," said Shawn Foster, a GOP state committeeman who helped organize a county fundraiser headlined by DeSantis in September that operatives believe was the largest in state history -- other than one once hosted by Trump.
DeSantis has raised $56 million so far this year through a political committee, and in a sign of his growing national stature, almost half of his 2021 haul has come from outside Florida. His committee has spent sparingly -- just $2.3 million in the past 12 months -- though it has paid to keep up with demand for the brash, DeSantis-themed merchandise for sale on his website. DeSantis famously sold "Don't Fauci my Florida" koozies this summer as the Sunshine State became the epicenter of the country's coronavirus outbreak.
Now for sale: DeSantis-branded golf balls with the slogan "Florida's Governor has a pair."
Trump keeping tabs on potential competitors
The simmering tension between Trump and DeSantis comes as the former President himself inches closer to another campaign for the White House in 2024. Trump has been closely tracking what rumored Republican presidential hopefuls have said about their own interest in running, and is most interested in those -- like DeSantis -- who command significant popularity with his core supporters.
With an eye toward 2024, Trump has been working aggressively since leaving office to exert his control over the Republican Party with endorsements of insurgent GOP candidates, regular appearances on the campaign trail and intense demands for loyalty from Republicans across the local, state and federal level. One former Trump White House official said the approach Trump has taken to ensure that he remains in charge of the party spares no one -- not even elected Republicans who have demonstrated the utmost loyalty to him in most situations.
"He wants to be top dog, not just nationally, but in these states" that will matter if he becomes the Republican nominee in 2024, said the former White House official.
The official noted that DeSantis isn't the only GOP governor who has been on the receiving end of the former President's praise one day and resented the next.
"He was at the border with (Texas Gov.) Greg Abbott three or four months ago and then a month later, you get that statement where he was critical of Abbott," the official recalled, referring to a letter Trump wrote to the Texas governor in September demanding that he support a forensic audit of the state's 2020 election results. (Trump joined Abbott on a tour of the US-Mexico border in late June amid a surge of unauthorized border crossings under the Biden administration).
"He changes his tune every other day with some of these guys and what you're seeing with DeSantis -- Trump being hot and cold -- isn't necessarily unique to him," said the former Trump White House official.
If asked, Trump advisers believe the former President would campaign for DeSantis' re-election. Iarossi said he wasn't sure what Trump's involvement will be in 2022, but added: "Trump's brand is still great in Florida so I think he's a great ally to have."
Some Trump foes have picked up on the former President's jealousy and are using it to advance their own objectives. Next week, Palm Beach televisions, perhaps including those in Mar-a-Lago, will once again air a commercial by the Lincoln Project intended to remind Trump that DeSantis is the new GOP "it" guy.
Rick Wilson, one of the ex-Republicans behind the Lincoln Project, is hoping to provoke a very specific reaction from Trump.
"We want Trump to kill his own babies," Wilson said. "We believe if we narrow the field and it's only Trump in 2024, it's an easy choice for Americans to say 'no.'"
DeSantis, who once aired a campaign commercial reading Trump's "Art of the Deal" to his infant son, has ably navigated Trump to his own political benefit for years. As a candidate for US Senate in 2016, DeSantis repeatedly declined to endorse Trump in the GOP presidential primary. But after Trump won and his popularity skyrocketed among Republican voters, DeSantis regularly appeared on Fox News where he was a staunch defender of the President. Trump took notice, and tweeted his support for DeSantis in the 2018 gubernatorial primary for governor over a better-funded establishment favorite.
Trump has often reminded DeSantis of that history, claiming at a 2020 rally that DeSantis was polling at 3% and "had no money" before Trump got involved. "He ran, I endorsed him, his numbers went through the roof," Trump told the crowd.
But if Trump is waiting for DeSantis to return the favor by publicly ceding the 2024 nomination, he shouldn't hold his breath. With a reelection campaign still ahead, and Democrats already accusing DeSantis of campaigning for his next office, the governor's allies say it doesn't make sense politically for him to speak about the future.
"He hasn't said he's running in 2024," Iarossi said. "Why would he dismiss something that he hasn't expressed interest in running for?"
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