For months, former President Donald J. Trump quietly grumbled with friends and visitors to his Palm Beach mansion about a rival Republican power center in another Florida mansion, about 400 miles north.
Governor Ron DeSantis, a man Mr. Trump believes has put on the map, has acted much less like a sidekick and more like a future competitor, Mr. Trump complains. With his rapidly rising stock in the party, the governor has conspicuously refrained from saying he would step down if Mr Trump runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
“The magic words,” Trump told several associates and advisers.
This long-standing resentment recently burst into public view during a dispute over a seemingly unrelated topic: Covid policies. After Mr DeSantis refused to reveal his full Covid vaccination history, the former president publicly acknowledged that he had received a booster. Last week he appeared to hit out at Mr DeSantis by calling him “gutless” politicians who dodge the question for fear of a backlash from vaccine skeptics.
Mr. DeSantis hit back Friday, criticizing Mr. Trump’s early handling of the pandemic and saying he regretted not being more vocal in his complaints.
The back-and-forth revealed just how far right Republicans have shifted on coronavirus politics. The doubts Mr. Trump has amplified about public health expertise have only skyrocketed since he left office. Now his defense of vaccines — though often subdued and almost always with the caveat in the same breath that he opposes warrants — has put him uncharacteristically out of step with the hardline elements of his base. gone and provided an opening for a rival.
But the fact that it was Mr. DeSantis – a once loyal member of the Trump court – wielding the knife made the tension that much greater.
At its core, the dispute amounts to replacing the larger challenge facing Republicans at the start of the midterm elections. They are led by a defeated former president who demands complete loyalty, tolerates no criticism, and is determined to sniff out, then snuff out, any threat to his control of the party.
That includes DeSantis, 43, who told friends he thought waiting for Mr. Trump to bend the knee was asking too much. That denial has caused generational shock and a test of loyalty in today’s de facto GOP capital, watched by Republicans elsewhere who came to power in the wake of Mr. Trump.
Already, party figures are trying to calm things down.
“They are the two most important leaders in the Republican Party,” said Brian Ballard, a longtime Florida lobbyist with ties to the two men, predicting that Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis “will be personal and political friends. for the rest of their career. .”
Mr. Trump’s aides have also tried to stifle questions about the former president’s frustrations, so as not to elevate Mr. DeSantis.
Still, Mr. Trump has made no secret of his preparations for a third run at the White House. And although Mr. DeSantis, who is up for re-election this year, has not declared his plans, he is widely believed to be eyeing the presidency.
Mr. Trump and his aides are aware of growing public fatigue among Republicans over the drama following Mr. Trump. The former president’s false claims about fraud in the 2020 election — which Mr. DeSantis has not disputed — and his role in the events leading up to the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill have some Republicans looking a new start.
Mr. DeSantis is often the first name Republicans cite as a possible Trump-style nominee who is not named Trump.
“DeSantis would be a terrific 2024 candidate in the Trump lane if Trump didn’t run,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor. “It’s Trump but a little smarter, more disciplined and blunt without being too blunt.”
Notably, Mr. Trump, a longtime student of charisma and mass appeal, as well as an avid reader of polls, has so far refrained from publicly attacking Mr. DeSantis, who is a second distant but mighty after him in the 2024 GOP polls. His restraint is a break from the mockery and intimidation he often uses to attack Republicans he perceives as vulnerable. Mr. Trump made no reference to the governor at a rally in Arizona on Saturday.
Mr. DeSantis has $70 million in the bank for his re-election, a war chest that he hoarded with help from the Republican base and the donor class. He has raised his profile in the same spaces that Mr. Trump once dominated. The governor is ubiquitous on Fox News, where he is regularly encountered with the kind of softballs that once headed for Mr. Trump. And he frequently mixes with the well-tanned community of Republican donors near the former president’s winter home in South Florida.
It wasn’t always like this.
Mr. DeSantis was a little-known congressman from Florida in 2017 when Mr. Trump, who was then president, spotted him on television and took a keen interest. Mr. DeSantis, an Ivy League-educated military veteran and advocate for the new president, was exactly what Mr. Trump liked in a politician.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Trump blessed Mr. DeSantis’ gubernatorial bid and sent staff to help him, elevating the lawmaker to a victory over a better-known rival for the party’s nomination.
Mr. DeSantis has survived the general election and has often governed in a style that mirrors his boss, cutting left and railing with the media. But that alone does not appease Mr. Trump. As with other Republicans he has endorsed, the former president appears to be taking some sort of stake in Mr. DeSantis — and believing he is owed dividends and deference.
“Look, I’ve helped Ron DeSantis on a level that no one has ever seen before,” Trump said in an interview for a forthcoming book, “Insurgency,” about the Republican Party’s rightward shift, per New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters. Mr Trump said he believed Mr DeSantis “had no chance” of winning without his help.
The former president’s expectation of deference from Mr. DeSantis reminds fellow Republicans that an endorsement from Trump comes at a price, a demand that could prove especially consequential if he runs again and has a stable of Republican lawmakers in his debt.
At times, Mr. Trump has sought to rekindle his relationship with Mr. DeSantis. He suggested the governor would be a strong choice for vice president. A similar courtship helped earn deference from other potential rivals. But Mr. DeSantis did not give in.
“I wonder why the guy isn’t saying he won’t run against me,” Trump told several associates and advisers, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Mr Trump began the recent setback by attacking the governor’s refusal to acknowledge whether he had received a Covid-19 booster shot.
“The answer is ‘Yes,’ but they don’t want to say it, because they don’t have the guts,” Mr. Trump said in a TV interview this month, referring only to “politicians” but clearly alluding to Mr. DeSantis. “You have to say it – whether you got it or not, say it.”
Mr. DeSantis’ response came in an interview on the conservative “Ruthless” podcast on Friday. Speaking to an in-person audience near St. Petersburg, Florida, the governor said one of his biggest regrets was not that he forcefully opposed Mr Trump’s calls for a lockdown when the coronavirus began to spread in the spring of 2020.
“Knowing now what I know then, if this had been a threat earlier, I would have been much louder,” Mr. DeSantis said. The governor said he had “told Trump ‘to stop flights from China'”, but claimed he never thought in early March 2020 that the virus would “lead to locking down the country”.
Mr. DeSantis then moved quickly to shift the blame to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who advised Trump on the country’s Covid response, a much safer target with conservatives.
The former president did not immediately react. Without a Twitter account, his trigger replies have become less frequent. A spokesperson for Mr. Trump also did not respond to requests for comment. An adviser to Mr. DeSantis declined to comment.
Mr. DeSantis, however, touched on a sensitive issue, one of the few on which Mr. Trump is to the left of his party’s hardliners: the effectiveness of the vaccine and adherence to the advice of health experts. public on how to curb the spread of the virus.
Mr. Trump has begun firing warning shots at Mr. DeSantis and other Republican aspirants, signaling that he intends to defend the vaccines his administration helped develop. In an interview with right-wing media personality Candace Owens, the former president said “the vaccine worked” and dismissed conspiracy theories. “People don’t die when they take the vaccine,” he said.
Mr. DeSantis, however, has been much more eager to focus on his resistance to Covid-19 restrictions, past and present, than to make a strong case for vaccinations and boosters.
Notably, at his Saturday rally, Mr Trump failed to promote vaccines and criticized so-called Covid ‘lockdowns’.
Mr. Trump’s loudest antagonists will likely continue to stoke tension between the two men. Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator who fell out with the former president, welcomed the dust this week.
“Trump is demanding to know Ron DeSantis’ recall status, and I can now reveal it,” Coulter wrote on Twitter. “He was a staunch reminder when Trump ran in 2016, but then he learned that our president was a liar and a crook whose grudge was permanent.”
In an email, Ms Coulter, herself a part-time resident of Florida, elaborated on what makes Mr DeSantis’ rise troubling for the former president. “Trump is done,” she wrote. “You should stop obsessing over him.”
Jeremy W. Peters contributed report.