Trump Is Already Plotting Against DeSantis. Here’s His Playbook So Far – Rolling Stone
Former President Donald Trump and his allies have already started charting out possible plans of attack against likely 2024 rival and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, according to three people familiar with the matter.
“This is where…Trump kicks him in the nuts,” one person close to the ex-president says.
The former president’s determination to obliterate his ascendent rival underscores just how unwilling Trump is to pass the torch and surrender his stewardship of the GOP — even if it shreds the party. As Trump and his ideological heir DeSantis vie for control of the Republican Party, the victor in that power struggle will help determine the precise kind of extreme politics that modern conservatives see as their future: the authoritarian personality cult of a Trump, or the more disciplined MAGAism of a DeSantis.
With everyone on Team Trump expecting DeSantis to challenge the former president in the upcoming GOP presidential primary, Trump and his advisers are plotting a new scorched-earth campaign against DeSantis as soon as he declares his 2024 candidacy.
In the past two months, Trump has talked to political allies about effective ways to pummel DeSantis on both personal issues — recurring concerns about his “likeability” and supposed charisma deficit — and on policy matters such as DeSantis’ hawkish foreign policy, trade stances, COVID-19 posturing, closeness to the party’s “establishment,” and the past votes to slash the social safety net, sources familiar with the matter tell Rolling Stone.
Trump has participated in a handful of discussions on this topic so far, but campaign advisers are trying to keep the finer details of their oppo blitz under wraps for now. Still, that hasn’t stemmed Trump’s enthusiasm for going after DeSantis — his former MAGA-friendly ally — whom the former president now sees as his greatest intra-party foe. In recent weeks, Trump has repeatedly quizzed some of those close to him: “What else do we have on [Ron]?” he has asked, according to two sources who’ve heard his query.
On a host of issues, Trump and his lieutenants are itching to portray DeSantis as the “establishment” figure — the one who is preferred by the supposedly squishy party bigwigs like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. One of Trump’s biggest impacts on the GOP was largely shelving the budget-slashing austerity economics of former Speaker Ryan and ushering in a free-spending, debt-ballooning era that combined tax cuts for the rich, with a rhetorical cease-fire on threats to the bennies of the masses — ranging from Social Security to Medicare.
One area in which Trump and his allies smell that kind of weakness in DeSantis is on Social Security (even though President Trump himself displayed an openness toward eventual significant cuts to popular entitlement programs).
“In a Republican primary, only Donald Trump could effectively go after Ron DeSantis for wanting to cut Social Security,”a Republican close to the 2024 Trump campaign tells Rolling Stone. “Trump has a track record of saying the right things on this issue both when it comes to a general election and also Republican voters in a primary. DeSantis’ record in the House [on this topic] is very much of the Paul Ryan, privatize Social Security platform, which is just not where our voters are now.”
For Trump, DeSantis may be easy to paint as a heartless budget-slasher. During his stint in the House from 2013 to 2018, DeSantis was a founding member of Freedom Caucus — the hardest of the hardline members of the GOP conference. “He was part of the team,” Freedom Caucus founder and former Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon tells Rolling Stone. Salmon further praises DeSantis as “one of the most principled people I ever got a chance to work with.”
At the time before the rise of Trumpism in 2015 and 2016, those principles were all about constraining government spending by repealing Obamacare and pursuing “entitlement reform.” In 2013, during DeSantis’ first year in office, he voted for a far-right budget resolution that sought to balance the federal budget in just four years — twice as fast as a competing measure by Ryan that got the Republican budget wonk lampooned as a “zombie-eyed granny starver.”
The draconian cuts DeSantis voted for would have raised the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare to 70. It would have weakened Medicare by offering seniors “premium support” instead of comprehensive health coverage. And it would have eroded Social Security by giving recipients miserly annual adjustments for inflation. Taken together, the two measures would have cut these bedrock safety-net programs for seniors by more than $250 billion over a decade.
Furthermore, two people who’ve spoken to Trump in the past couple of months about how DeSantis is the “establishment” candidate — a claim Trump likes to hurl, even though Trump is the literal leader and standard-bearer of his own party — say that the ex-president has brought up foreign policy as a means to differentiate himself from the Florida Republican. During at least one dinner late last year, the former president told a longtime associate that DeSantis was fine with “endless wars,” according to a source with direct knowledge of the exchange.
On foreign policy, Trump represented a partial break with the interventionist neoconservative foreign policy that had defined the GOP since the George W. Bush era. Trump trashed GOP hawks like John McCain, hectored NATO allies to cough up more cash for their own defense, played footsie with Vladimir Putin, regularly lambasted U.S. commitments in Afghanistan and Syria (even as he’d escalate military involvement abroad), and forged an open bromance with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
DeSantis has a far more conventional Republican profile. That starts with his decorated military service — during the Global War on Terror he served as a JAG officer at Guantanamo, and deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, as the top legal adviser to SEAL Team One.
MAGA politicians are frequently Russia apologists, seeing Putin as an avatar of the kind of authoritarian Christian nationalism they’d prefer to install in the United States. But on Russia, in particular, DeSantis sounds like a throwback, McCain-style hawk, blasting Putin as an “authoritarian gas station attendant… with some legacy nuclear weapons.”
And when it comes to other aspects of his international and domestic platform, the former president has been using a familiar playbook, and appears to be sticking to it. In a throwback to 2016, he’s described DeSantis in several private conversations in recent weeks as: “Bad on trade.”
True to his belligerent brand of politics, Trump made trade wars a centerpiece of his administration. In a display of executive power, Trump slapped tariffs on everything from solar panels to washing machines to steel — offending geopolitical foes (China), frenemies (India), and allies (Canada) in equal measure. For Trump, hiking taxes on cheap imports became a politically potent — if economically incoherent — display of economic nationalism.
Quietly, DeSantis is far more mainstream on trade. While taking rhetorical swings at “Communist” China, DeSantis has been solicitous of top U.S. trade partners as Florida’s governor, recently hosting a trade conference with Japan in Orlando.
In recent huddles with longtime confidants, Trump has signaled his intention to cudgel DeSantis for the former congressman’s role in advancing a Pacific-rim free trade pact called the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). In a 2015 vote, DeSantis voted to give president Obama “fast track” authority to pursue that trade deal with dozens of Asian nations. He joined an unusual bipartisan coalition with some far-left Democrats — including former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Rep. Earl Blumenaur, who represents Portland, Oregon. In Trump’s words, this makes DeSantis somehow “pro-Obama” on trade policy.
Whatever the policy merits of the trade deal, it was bad politics amid rising economic nationalism. Public opinion broke so sharply against TPP that even Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton ran against it in her 2016 presidential bid, and Trump spiked U.S. participation shortly on his first full day in office, having crusaded against it as a “bad, bad deal for American businesses, for workers, for taxpayers.”
But in perhaps his most brazen effort to brand himself as Trumpier than Trump, DeSantis has for months tried to fully ingratiate himself to the anti-vaccine factions of the GOP. It’s a move that Trump — as he told at least one Republican strategist late last year — sees as completely…