Ron DeSantis Is Finally Going After Donald Trump. It’s Already Too Late.

DeSantis, stuck in a distant second place after five months, is beginning to take more shots at Trump now that the former president has him backed into a corner.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is upping his attacks on Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is upping his attacks on Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination.
Associated Press

After former President Donald Trump called the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah ”very smart at a rally Wednesday night while also lashing out at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first of Trump’s 2024 opponents to rebuke him came as something of a surprise.

“Terrorists have murdered at least 1,200 Israelis and 22 Americans and are holding more hostage,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wrote on social media last night, “so it is absurd that anyone, much less someone running for President, would choose now to attack our friend and ally, Israel, much less praise Hezbollah terrorists as ‘very smart.’”

It’s the latest instance of DeSantis going after the Republican front-runner in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago when the Florida governor was still approaching Trump’s presence in the race with blinders on — even as Trump has relentlessly attacked him since the start of the race.

Trump has yet to let up, taunting “Ron DeSanctimonious” with daily emails counting down a fictional end to his campaign (13 days as of Thursday).

But DeSantis is beginning to take more regular take shots at Trump from a distant second or third place (depending on the poll), calling him out for his no-show at last month’s GOP debate, blaming him for initially backing Republican Kevin McCarthy as House speaker and suggesting that Trump shouldn’t be running for president to begin with, given his legal troubles.

It’s what many across the political spectrum had hoped to see from DeSantis all along — but it now reads to some as too little, too late, to salvage a candidacy that’s been on the skids since its launch in May.

“If there was ever a time to do it, it was in the summer. It’s not now, in the late fall heading into the election year,” said Mike Madrid, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, the group founded by Republicans opposing Trump. “Now he’s taken off the gloves. This is what I think a lot of people wanted to see, what they were expecting, it just [came too late].”

There’s still no evidence to suggest, however, that GOP voters are even looking for an alternative to Trump, who remains the party’s de-facto leader and the undisputed front-runner in the presidential primary. Trump’s polling average has reached 58% nationally, 45 points ahead of Desantis, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.

DeSantis is stuck in a very distant second place nationally, but trailing Trump not quite as badly in Iowa, where he’s concentrating the bulk of his campaign manpower for the first-in-the-nation caucuses. In New Hampshire, the state following Iowa on the nominating calendar, DeSantis is polling behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose campaign says it ended the last fundraising quarter with more money on hand for the primary than DeSantis, another unfavorable development for the Florida governor.

DeSantis has tried reintroducing himself to voters once before, but it seemed to have no effect on his standing in the race. Now, after months of stagnation despite ample time in front of the public, Trump has DeSantis backed into a corner.

“He’s got no choice but to start swinging, and Trump is giving him all the fodder that he needs,” Madrid said. “DeSantis’ whole campaign now is tweeting Trump videos, and I’m here for it. He’s fueling and giving content to the whole Never Trump movement now.”

Keith Naughton, a GOP strategist and commentator, agreed: “I don’t think DeSantis has or had a choice. [Mike] Pence was a punching bag, and that didn’t work for him,” he said, referring to Trump’s attacks on his former vice president for refusing to overturn the 2020 election. Pence has rebuked Trump for the 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol but hasn’t gone after Trump as forcefully on anything else.

Joe Walsh, a former congressman who ran a brief campaign for president in 2020 as an anti-Trumper, said there was never a path for DeSantis to win the nomination — and going all-out to defeat Trump now runs the risk of permanently ruining the Floridian’s reputation with the GOP base.

“I don’t think he’s going after Trump very hard. I think he’s just taken some sporadic shots, especially when Trump says something so egregious,” said Walsh, who described Trump’s remarks on Israel as beyond the pale, even for him.

“The race is fucking over; it was over a long time ago,” he added. “He’s got to salvage his reputation with Republican base voters and move beyond ’24. So I’d be stunned if he really goes after Trump hard because if he does, he’s a dead man.”

“The race is f**king over; it was over a long time ago.”

- Joe Walsh, former congressman who ran a brief campaign for president in 2020

Trump’s comments about having a “bad experience” working with Netanyahu during the joint 2020 operation to assassinate Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani eventually attracted criticism from his other primary opponents.

The former president, at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, also praised Hezbollah, which traded fire with Israel over the weekend in support of Palestinians. Trump’s campaign attempted to walk back his remarks, arguing that “very smart” does not mean “very good.”

DeSantis’ camp doubled down on Trump’s comments in a statement Thursday: “No matter what rhetorical gymnastics act his campaign team tries to perform to attempt to once again cover for him, nobody can change the fact that last night Donald Trump showed his true colors by insulting Israelis during one of their darkest hours and simultaneously complimenting one of the terrorist groups that continue to pose a grave threat to Israelis and Americans alike. It is disturbing and disqualifying,” DeSantis spokesperson Andrew Romeo said.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) called Trump’s comments on Netanyahu and Hezbollah “just wrong” on the campaign trail in Iowa on Thursday.

“We should have no daylight whatsoever in the midst of this war ... We should stand clearly with Israel and with the prime minister,” Scott said.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has framed his entire campaign around antagonizing Trump, weighed in Thursday afternoon: “When one of our most important allies is at war and defending their women and children from terrorists, it’s a time to support them. All decent Americans understand this. But not Donald Trump. What does he do? He praises the murderers and attacks Israel over petty personal grievances,” the Republican tweeted.

DeSantis and his allies are still sensitive to offending MAGA voters, judging by an edited version of a tweet circulating from Never Back Down, the super-PAC supporting DeSantis that has taken on the lion’s share of his campaign operations.

The tweet blamed Trump’s “ferocious criticism” of Israel on a personal political beef with Netanyahu, who recognized President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory as legitimate despite Trump’s baseless arguments to the contrary.

“It’s clear he’s angry at Netanyahu for recognizing that Biden beat him in 2020,” the PAC wrote before striking the mention of Biden winning — a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that a majority of Republican voters do not believe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.

The group finally settled on: “It’s clear he’s angry at Netanyahu for recognizing that Trump lost in 2020.”

Igor Bobic contributed reporting.

Popular in the Community

Close

What's Hot