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WASHINGTON – The political world waited for Ron DeSantis this weekend to weigh in on the possible indictment of Donald Trump. And then waited. And waited again.
In the meantime, social media influencers and acolytes of the Trump world raked DeSantis over virtual coals, pointing to his silence as complicity in — or at least indifference to — New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecution of Trump, the GOP’s top leader.
Behind the scenes, Trump aides fanned the flames, targeted the Florida governor in press releases and cheered when Trump’s global influencers slammed him on Twitter and Truth Social.
When DeSantis finally spoke at a press conference in Tallahassee, Florida on Monday, he took a shot at Bragg — and at Trump.
“Circus” and “Soros,” DeSantis said of the grand jury investigation and billionaire liberal donor George Soros. “Hush money” and “porn star,” he added, repeating the allegation against Trump.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know this: the Manhattan DA is a Soros-funded DA,” he said, accusing Bragg of arming his office to prosecute Trump while neglecting to other crimes. (Soros, through cap change colorsupported Bragg’s election campaign.)
But DeSantis added, “I don’t know what goes into paying silent money to a porn star to get silence on some type of alleged affair. I can’t comment on that.”
That’s when all hell broke loose in the fight for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, signaling the start of the political arms race that Trump has been trying to start since DeSantis became his main rival last year.
Trump turned to Truth Social say it would be unfair for DeSantis to be attacked for grooming young girls or being gay. Trump’s message left little to the imagination: It included a photo of a man, allegedly a young DeSantis, standing with a group of young women, one of whom is holding a bottle.
“Ron DeSanctimonious will likely discover FALSE ACCUSATIONS AND FALSE STORIES in the future, as he grows older, becomes wiser and better known, when he is unjustly and unlawfully attacked by a woman, even “underage” classmates. (or maybe a man!),” Trump wrote. “I’m sure he’ll want to fight those misfits like I do!”
The photo comes from a 2021 blog post on a site called The Hill Reporter, which allegedly showed a photo of DeSantis with several young women during his brief time as a high school teacher over 20 years ago. BNC News did not confirm the authenticity of the image.
The outbreak of an open political war between the two men will have far-reaching consequences for Trump, who leads in most national polls, and DeSantis, who stood out ahead of the rest of the GOP field without announcing a bid. . But the two sides disagree on exactly how the race was disrupted.
Trump allies believe DeSantis’ early silence — and his decision to attack Trump directly over allegations of an affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels — show he’s not ready for the hours of great listening.
“He just doesn’t have it right now, and this weekend showed that,” said Steve Bannon, host of the “Bannon’s War Room” podcast and former Trump adviser. The remark about Daniels, whom Trump denies having slept with, was “a cheap shot from the cheap seats,” he said.
DeSantis’ press conference was “a disaster” and 10% of Trump’s MAGA voters would never vote for DeSantis now, Bannon said.
“Without 100% MAGA, you can’t win – ask [Virginia Gov. Glenn] Youngkin,” he added.
Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the third Republican in the House of Representatives, predicted that DeSantis would see a “slip” in her polls after the remarks.
“He’s already seen some slip-ups over the past two weeks,” said Stefanik, one of Trump’s early backers. “And I think you’re going to see President Trump continue to solidify his position” in the Republican contest.
But DeSantis supporters saw the importance of back and forth in a different light.
“It’s already a two-horse race,” said Dan Eberhart, a longtime DeSantis donor who backs him in the primaries. “The substance of the attacks aside, the fact that Trump is going after DeSantis — and no one else — betrays who worries him most.”
While Eberhart said other Republicans waiting on the sidelines may have “missed their window” to become nomination contestants, he also said the lesson of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s absorbing attacks from President Barack Obama this summer should not be lost on DeSantis, who had largely avoided direct confrontation from Trump until Monday.
“DeSantis shouldn’t ignore it for too long,” Eberhart said.
Some DeSantis supporters fear he will be weighed down by attacks from Trump before announcing he is running, which he is not expected to do for at least two months.
Former Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., who encouraged DeSantis to run for president, said the legal ramifications Trump faces not only in New York but also in Georgia and other ongoing investigations are “still a big unknown”. He didn’t see a problem with how DeSantis spoke about the issue on Monday.
“You can simultaneously criticize what these political prosecutions are doing and how it undermines the rule of law, how we’re pushing the double standard of justice…and still looking for new leadership that can somehow do the things we need to. do to really drain the swamp and really bring this government back to the side of the American people,” he said. “It’s not an either/or.”
“We have to move forward and look to the future,” he added.
Spokespersons for Trump and DeSantis did not respond to calls seeking comment on Monday.
Trump, who first referred to DeSantis as “Ron DeSanctimonious” days before the midterm elections, has repeatedly attacked him in recent months, seeking to wage a battle. Last month, Trump called watch out for the photo that appears to show DeSantis with young women. This month, the main pro-Trump super PAC filed a complaint with the Florida Ethics Commission accusing DeSantis of breaking the law via his “shadow presidential campaign”.
Either way, DeSantis kept his response more low-key. After Trump shared the photo, DeSantis told reporters he doesn’t spend time “trying to smear other Republicans.” In response to the complaint, Taryn Fenske, its communications director, called it a “frivolous and politically motivated” attack.
Many Republican lawmakers have rallied to Trump’s defense since he announced on Saturday, without evidence, that he expects to be indicted on Tuesday. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who clashed with Trump in the Jan. 6 uprising and is considering a presidential bid, joined this set over the weekend.
A fight between the twin titans could pave the way for an alternate option – at least, that’s what the rest of the pack is counting on.
But a fight that gets so ugly so soon could drag the others down in the mud.
“Nobody votes for 11 months,” an adviser told another potential candidate. “If they’re going to ramp up the rhetoric in this place now, GOP voters won’t like where it ends up in February 2024.”