Former President Trump on Monday opened the door on what might be the nastiest primary fight yet, lashing out at acolyte-turned-rival Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida who is widely seen as his most powerful rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Eight years removed from a 2016 GOP primary where he regularly mocked would-be rivals such as “low-energy” Jeb Bush and “lyin’” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Trump ahead of a visit to Iowa told reporters on his plane that he regretted endorsing DeSantis during his 2018 bid for governor.
Later in the evening, he used a speech in Davenport to take several potshots at DeSantis, accusing him of wanting to “decimate” Social Security and comparing him to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee.
While it wasn’t the first time that Trump went after DeSantis, his comments marked a dramatic intensification of his attacks.
Republicans tiptoeing around the 2024 race have generally been playing nice and avoiding attacks, but Trump’s assault on DeSantis raises questions about whether a more aggressive primary season is now upon the country.
Stephen Lawson, a Republican strategist who served as communications director for DeSantis’s successful 2018 gubernatorial campaign, said the attacks by Trump showed his desperation.
“The governor hasn’t announced yet and Trump already looks this desperate. And desperation is a stinky cologne,” he said. “I think voters are going to be able to smell that pretty quickly. The fact that Trump’s already lashing out this readily says something.”
DeSantis’s campaign didn’t respond to a request from The Hill for comment.
The Florida governor has so far avoided engaging with Trump. Asked during an interview with Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade on Monday whether he was “worried of being defined” by Trump’s attacks before he ever jumps into the 2024 contest, DeSantis laughed off the question.
“When you have a record of achievement, people can call you a name, but that’s not going to trump the achievement,” DeSantis said. “We’ve built an astounding record of achievement, the best is yet to come, we’re going to do a lot more over the next few months, and that’s what people look to.”
Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, has also largely avoided going directly at her former boss in the early weeks of her campaign. Instead, her swipes at Trump have mostly been implied, such as when she used her launch event to call for a new generation of Republican leadership and advocated for a competency test for politicians older than 75.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has yet to declare his candidacy but is weighing a bid and traveling to early primary states, has been among the more outspoken Republicans about Trump, a surprising move given his unflinching loyalty for four years during the Trump administration.
Pence has repeatedly called out Trump by name for trying to overturn the 2020 election and for the events of Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob violently stormed the Capitol. Pence on Saturday said he believes “history will hold” Trump accountable for his actions.
But on other issues, like Ukraine and entitlements, Pence has broken with his former boss without naming him.
Some Republicans say that there’s a risk in dodging Trump entirely. One Republican strategist, who’s worked on presidential campaigns, recalled the 2016 GOP primary, when many well-heeled candidates wrote off Trump as a long shot and ignored his attacks. Ultimately, the strategist said, that allowed Trump to define his opponents before they ever had a chance to fight back.
“At some point, you’re going to have to go on offense or you risk being defined on Donald Trump’s terms and not your own,” one Republican strategist said. “I think back to 2015, 2016 and a lot of these guys tried to ignore what he was saying, and look how that worked out for them.”
Trump in 2016 mocked fellow candidate Carly Fiorina’s appearance, Cruz’s wife, went after Bush’s family and exchanged schoolyard taunts with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) about hand size.
As more candidates enter the 2024 race, the attacks could grow more personal.
He has already threatened to reveal damaging personal information about DeSantis, and he said in an interview last month that he didn’t want to “embarrass” Haley by revealing whether she asked to be his running mate in 2020.
Trump has occasionally swiped at Haley, calling her overly ambitious, referencing her previous pledge not to run against Trump in 2024 and highlighting her positions on entitlements to argue that she would cut Social Security and Medicare.
The former president on Monday also suggested it was Pence’s fault there was violence on Jan. 6 because Pence did not reject the election results. Trump spent the weeks leading up to the riots spreading false claims that the election was stolen and that Pence had the power to overturn it.
“I guess he figured that being nice is not working,” Trump told reporters aboard his personal plane. “But, you know, he’s out there campaigning. And he’s trying very hard. And he’s a nice man, I’ve known him, I had a very good relationship until the end.”
But Trump’s strongest attacks have been reserved for DeSantis, a sign that the former president views the Florida governor as his most formidable challenger for the GOP nomination.
“The field is going to try to avoid taking on Trump directly for as long as possible because they all want to avoid his fire,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor and CEO of Canary, LLC. “But if Trump isn’t going after them, it’s because he doesn’t consider them a threat. The more candidates there are in the race, the better it is for Trump. He’s going to try to keep as many candidates that he doesn’t consider serious contenders in the race as possible.”
Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime Republican operative and the executive director of the conservative South Carolina Policy Council, said that there’s a risk for Trump in trying to drag the 2024 primary into the dirt. After three lackluster election cycles, he said, voters are looking for a sense of stability, not volatility.
“DeSantis, Haley, whoever — they don’t need to get into the gutter with Trump,” Woodhouse said. “I think DeSantis does this really well. People already know what Trump is, so what’s there to gain from engaging with him?”