President Trump has gotten increasingly aggressive in attacking Ron DeSantis (R) as the Florida governor inches toward a presidential campaign, posing potentially the biggest threat to date to Trump’s bid for the GOP’s 2024 nomination.
While Trump has lobbed plenty of schoolyard taunts and nicknames toward his onetime ally, the former president in recent days showed how he will also look to highlight some of DeSantis’s past policy views to dampen support for the governor among Republican voters.
It’s a surprise move for the former president, who wasn’t known as a policy wonk during his four years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Even more surprising, the policy-based attacks have shown some signs of landing as the two Floridians battle ahead of the GOP primary fight.
Trump on Monday in Davenport, Iowa, went after DeSantis on an issue near and dear to many Iowans: ethanol.
Iowa leads the country in ethanol production, making production of the fuel compound critical for the state’s economy.
Trump took aim at DeSantis over his support as a congressman for a bill that would have ended the Renewable Fuel Standard, a mandate that ethanol account for a specific percentage of the nation’s fuel supply.
“[DeSantis] strongly opposed ethanol. Do you know that?” Trump told a crowd of supporters. “And we don’t even know if he’s running. But I might as well tell you. If he’s not running, I’ll say he was fine on ethanol, don’t worry about it.”
“He strongly opposed ethanol and fought against it at every turn, and he’s going to do that again because people that come out early for something, that’s where they go,” Trump continued. “So he may do something politically, but he was very, very bad on ethanol, he fought it all the way.”
The line of attack could be particularly effective in Iowa, which hosts the first caucus of the GOP primary and where agriculture and ethanol are important to the state’s economy.
Trump may face some skepticism from Iowa farmers over his past support for tariffs and trade wars, which during his administration predominantly hurt farmers who were unable to export their crops to China. He also granted ethanol waivers to some smaller fuel refineries while he was president.
A Des Moines Register poll published last week found 80 percent of them hold a mostly favorable or very favorable opinion of Trump, a higher rating than any other potential GOP presidential candidate. Seventy-five percent said they had a very or mostly favorable view of DeSantis.
Social Security and Medicare
Trump has tried to distance himself from other would-be challengers for the nomination on the issue of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, and this week he zeroed in on DeSantis.
“He also fought against Social Security,” Trump said in Davenport. “He wanted to decimate it and voted against it three times. Voted against Social Security, that’s a bad one. A lot of people don’t know that, but I think they’ve been finding out over the past four weeks. One of the reasons we’re zooming in the polls, perhaps.”
Trump pointed to DeSantis’s prior support as a congressman for raising the minimum retirement age to 70.
CNN reported that DeSantis in 2012 spoke on the campaign trail about privatizing Social Security, and as a congressman he backed nonbinding budget resolutions to raise the retirement age to 70 for seniors to collect Social Security benefits.
The Florida governor in recent interviews sought to distance himself from those previous positions.
“We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans,” DeSantis told Fox News earlier this month. “I think that that’s pretty clear.”
While Trump has repeatedly vowed in recent weeks that he would not cut Social Security or Medicare as president — putting a marker down ahead of a budget fight where some Republicans are likely to say changes to the programs should be on the table — Democratic officials have noted Trump’s budget proposals while he was president called for cuts to those programs.
Support for Ukraine
DeSantis caused a stir among Republicans this week when he told Fox News host Tucker Carlson in a statement that he does not view support for Ukraine in its war against Russia as part of America’s “vital national interests.”
While DeSantis’s skepticism over support for Ukraine is broadly aligned with Trump’s own comments on the war, the former president still took issue with how the governor landed there.
“It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants,” Trump told a group of reporters on his personal plane on Monday, according to CBS News.
Trump’s comments appeared to be referencing DeSantis’s stance toward Ukraine as a congressman, when he was critical of the Obama administration for not doing more in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
CNN reported that DeSantis in 2014 and 2015 advocated for sending “defensive and offensive” weapons to Ukraine. The then-congressman also voted to refuse funding for a new missile treaty with Russia over its annexation of Crimea, the outlet reported.
For his part, Trump told Carlson opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine is not in America’s vital interests, but it is in Europe’s.
“That is why Europe should be paying far more than we are, or equal,” Trump wrote in response to a questionnaire from the Fox News host.
Nikki Haley, another GOP presidential hopeful for 2024, piled on in a statement of her own, saying “President Trump is right when he says Governor DeSantis is copying him—first in his style, then on entitlement reform, and now on Ukraine … Republicans deserve a choice, not an echo.”
Another area where Trump has tested out attacks on DeSantis is on his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a potentially risky strategy given some conservatives view the handling of the virus as a weakness for Trump.
Trump earlier this year made several comments targeting the governor for his decisions in the weeks and months after the outbreak in 2020.
“There are Republican governors that did not close their states; Florida was closed for a long period of time,” Trump said, adding that he felt DeSantis and his team were “trying to rewrite history.”
While DeSantis did eventually issue an order urging residents to stay at home in the early weeks of the pandemic, Florida was among the last states to do so. And the order ended in May, with DeSantis moving to reopen businesses, beaches, and schools more rapidly than many other states despite criticism about triggering an outbreak of the virus.
Many GOP strategists believe Trump’s response to the pandemic could actually be a vulnerability for him both among the Republican primary electorate, who may view him as too reliant on Anthony Fauci and other experts while in the White House, and among general election voters who believe Trump spread misinformation and did not take the virus seriously.