This is going to be one of those news cycles where the media claims that Trump holds some embarrassing or unwelcome opinion, his fans scream that it’s a lie concocted by the press to make him look bad or to drive a wedge on the right, and then a day later he frankly states that opinion in an interview. See, e.g., his alleged belief last summer that the election might be decertified and he might be reinstated as president. Maggie Haberman of the Times reported that and was instantly accused of spreading anti-Trump propaganda despite the fact that conservative sources were hearing the same thing. Predictably, Trump copped to it a few months later.
Today’s scoop will follow the same trajectory. He may not have arrived yet at the point where he’s prepared to call DeSantis a cuck and a loser by name, but he’s getting closer. And the more threatened he feels by the governor, the nastier he’s going to get.
Haberman and Jonathan Swan of Axios, two of the most sourced-up journalists in politics, have stories out today reporting the same thing: Trump is miffed that DeSantis won’t say “the magic words,” that he’ll stand aside in 2024 if Trump decides to run. Most other potential candidates, like Nikki Haley, have shown him that deference. DeSantis and Mike Pence haven’t, and Trump has noticed. He’s not worried about Pence for the understandable reason that the “Hang Mike Pence” party won’t be choosing Pence over Donald Trump in a one-on-one primary. But DeSantis is more of a threat because he continues to amass populist credibility, even outflanking Trump by pandering to anti-vaxxers in ways that Trump won’t.
Swan says it’s begun to get personal, particularly since Trump believes (rightly) that he made DeSantis a national figure by endorsing him in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. DeSantis refusing to stand aside for him now isn’t just a threat, it’s an act of ingratitude and disloyalty. And disloyalty is the cardinal sin for a figure like Trump:
“In the context of the 2024 election, he usually gives DeSantis a pop in the nose in the middle of that type of conversation,” said a source who recently spoke to Trump about DeSantis.
The source, who shared the private remarks on the condition of anonymity, has heard Trump criticize DeSantis on multiple occasions…
“He says DeSantis has no personal charisma and has a dull personality,” the source added…
The former president also’s said something to the effect of: “What’s the big deal? Why won’t he just say he’s not going to run against me?”
It’s a fair question. Why won’t DeSantis say he won’t run against him? Is he anticipating primarying Trump? Haberman and co-author Jonathan Martin claim that DeSantis knows what Trump wants to hear but he can’t bring himself to say it: “[T]he 43-year-old DeSantis … has told friends he believes Mr. Trump’s expectation that he bend the knee is asking too much.” Maybe it’s an ego thing, one alpha male refusing to kowtow to another. (Although DeSantis never had that problem in 2018.) But more likely is that it’s strategic: A smart guy like DeSantis knows that Trump practices “dominance politics” and that his fans idolize him for it. If he kisses the ring by announcing that he’ll stand aside for Trump in 2024, he’ll earn Trump’s goodwill but he’ll also signal weakness to the MAGA base he’s courting.
What’s the alternative, though? The last thing DeSantis wants while he’s running for reelection as governor is the distraction of a public feud with Trump. If Trump starts needling him by name, he’ll be forced to either hit back, escalating the tension, or to ignore it and take the shots. Which will make him look weak anyway.
The prudent Machiavellian play is to say he’ll stand aside, getting Trump off his back, and then “reconsider” in 2023 after he’s safely reelected. Trump does see a threat in him, per Haberman and Martin, and for good reason:
Mr. Trump and his aides are mindful of Republicans’ increasingly public fatigue with the drama that trails Mr. Trump. The former president’s false claims about fraud in the 2020 election — which Mr. DeSantis has not challenged — and his role in the events leading to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol have some Republicans looking for a fresh start.
How many Republicans are looking for a fresh start? Maybe more than were looking for one a year ago. DeSantis has been chipping away at Trump’s extravagant lead in 2024 primary polls, whittling what used to be a 50-point margin to something closer to 20-30 points in more recent ones. And it’s anyone’s guess how much Trump owes his current lead to simple name recognition. He’s the most famous man in the world whereas DeSantis remains known mainly to Republicans who pay attention to politics every day. If there really were a primary between them, how many of those 20-30 points would peel off towards DeSantis once they got a good look at him side by side with Trump?
As I say, though, DeSantis can’t have this fight now. He needs to do what he can to keep the peace with Trump until November and then hope that Trump-backed candidates fare badly in the midterms. The ideal “DeSantis 2024” situation is that the GOP underperforms with MAGA candidates in Senate races, spurring the conservative commentariat to make a big push towards electability in 2024. Establishment righty pols and pundits vastly prefer DeSantis to Trump; they just need an opening to make that case aggressively to the Trump-loving populist base. A bad showing for MAGA in the fall would be that opening.
Until then, DeSantis and his fans will have to keep toeing the line that the governor set in a recent interview when asked about tensions with Trump: It’s all media hype. You’re playing into “their” hands by even entertaining such a silly idea! That spin will work until the moment it doesn’t, when Trump finally engages DeSantis by name.