MIAMI When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis aired a high-profile political podcast last week, he brushed off the Covid lockdowns encouraged by former President Donald Trump at the start of the pandemic.
Remarks made for the irresistible titles of the two GOP heavyweights and possible 2024 contenders were in contention. Days earlier, Trump appeared to take a swipe at the popular governor, calling politicians who refused to reveal their vaccination status heartless.
Both sides have denied any real friction and accused the media of exaggerating tensions, but Trump advisers say they see a hidden hand at play: that of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is in a pitched battle with the former president over the future of the Republican Party in political races across the country.
They pointed to the podcast itself, as DeSantis made catchy remarks about The Ruthless program, which is co-hosted by longtime McConnells adviser Josh Holmes. And shortly after the podcast was released on Friday, Twitter was inundated with the suggestion that DeSantis hit out at Trump by saying one of his biggest regrets wasn’t being louder on the harms of lockdowns intended to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
To many in Trump’s camp, it all looked like a setup.
I love Josh. Josh is awesome. But it is a wholly owned subsidiary of McConnell World. And there’s no way you can tell me it was all just a coincidence, said a senior Trump adviser, echoing four others who spoke on condition of anonymity because they didn’t. weren’t allowed to speak publicly about private discussions in his political store.
Plus, DeSantis and his team knew what they were doing. How many Florida general election voters listen to “The Ruthless” podcast? the adviser asked in an interview. That said, maybe they were hoping for more from Ron, because let’s face it, he didn’t really criticize Trump. But they knew the media would instantly jump on it and wish it existed.”
The adviser said McConnell clearly sees DeSantis as a lesser evil and a way to irritate Trump.
Holmes said he didn’t want to get into an argument over the interview, but he vehemently denied any ill intent toward Trump or any coordination with McConnell regarding the podcast. He declined to comment further than to deny the speculation of McConnell’s involvement, laughing as foolish.
A Republican operative has scoffed at the idea that McConnell, who has publicly said he would absolutely support Trump if he wins the 2024 Republican nomination, was plotting to subvert his chances.
I’m sure Josh Holmes would like you to believe that Mitch McConnell is behind the scenes, moving plays against Trump, said Sarah Longwell, a Republican anti-Trump strategist. But I don’t think that’s it. I think McConnell belongs entirely to Trump.
McConnells’ Senate spokesman declined to comment, directing questions to John Ashbrook, who speaks for the minority leader on electoral policy matters and is Holmes’ business partner. In a brief message, Ashbrook indicated that McConnell would not respond to background fire.
But there’s no doubt that Trump and McConnell have refused to talk to each other since a crowd of Trump supporters rioted on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 to prevent certification of President Joe Bidens’ victory over Trump. McConnell criticized Trump for lying about his loss to Biden, and Trump repeatedly called McConnell an old crow and fake Republican while urging GOP senators to oust him as leader.
Trump is backing a slate of Republican senatorial hopefuls across the country this year. In Alaska, Trump-backed candidate Kelly Tshibaka, who is challenging McConnell’s ally, Senator Lisa Murkowski, has pledged not to back McConnell for her leadership job. Trump is also pressuring candidates from Nevada to Alabama to North Carolina to do the same.
In Arizona, McConnell retaliated by trying to recruit Governor Doug Ducey, an enemy of Trump, to run for the Senate. Trump pledged never to support Ducey after he refused to help Trump overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in his state.
McConnell asked me to push Ducey when I spoke to him a month ago when I was in DC, said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor. He added that he had texted Ducey since then, but had not made an in-person presentation.
John McLaughlin, who votes for Trump, said of McConnell: The Senate leadership polls aren’t as strong as President Trump’s. What McConnell can do is direct money and resources to candidates in Washington. It is more or less that.
McConnell is also a campaign ally and contributor to Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, whom Trump targeted after he voted to impeach him in response to the Jan. 6 riot. She faces a main challenger.
In Florida, DeSantis is running for his second and final term this year, not for the Senate, a point Trump supporters are quick to note.
All I hear is the governor is focused on getting re-elected, McLaughlin said. He added: Trump would crush the field if anyone wanted to run against him in the 2024 Republican primary. And most say they won’t.
But it was speculation about DeSantiss’ potential plans for 2024 that set him at odds with the former president and may have caught him in the crossfire between McConnell and Trump. As one of the most outspoken and high-profile governors resisting Covid lockdowns and mandates, DeSantis has steadily risen as a national figure in GOP politics and stands as the a top Republican favorite for president in 2024, if Trump doesn’t run himself.
There are now stories about Trump and DeSantis breaking napkins,” said John Bolton, a former national security adviser to Trump’s White House, “because Trump can see the same thing that everyone else can. see: DeSantis prepares [to run] whatever Trump does.”
Republican love for DeSantis and the favorable coverage he got in conservative media circles angered Trump for months, insiders say, as did DeSantis’ refusal to publicly say he would not run against Trump for the Presidency. Trump likes to note that he made DeSantis in 2018 by endorsing the then-little-known congressman, helping him win a GOP gubernatorial primary against a better-known and better-funded rival.
And when Trump brushed off gutless politicians last week, it sounded like a defining moment in Republican politics and a perfect topic to tackle on the Ruthless podcast when DeSantis recorded it Thursday night with Holmes in St. Florida.
Ruthless is still one of the most popular political podcasts in the country, and while it’s staunchly pro-Republican, it’s not a pro-McConnell or remotely anti-Trump mouthpiece.
Of the 107 top curators interviewed on the show, McConnell has only participated once. Holmes, one of the first Republican voices to identify DeSantis as a top Republican candidate for president if Trump does not run in 2024, asked DeSantis an open-ended question about whether there was any animosity between him and Trump.
DeSantis said no and blamed the press.
“I think that’s what the media does,” DeSantis replied. “You can’t fall for the bait…you know what they’re trying to do, so don’t take it. Just keep on going.
Moments later, Holmes asked DeSantis about his regrets, prompting the governor to mention that he thought he should have more vocally opposed Covid lockdowns in the spring of 2020 and should have opposed travel restrictions, which he had adopted. DeSantis criticized the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, by name, not Trump.
The comments were nearly identical to remarks DeSantis had made months prior, but the reaction from insiders and the media seemed to lend credence to the idea that DeSantis was taking aim at Trump.
Even some allies of both men believed DeSantis was going after his former benefactor.
DeSantis doing a Josh Holmes podcast to punch Trump isn’t what I had on my bingo card, said a Republican who spoke anonymously to avoid criticism. It’s a thing.
A top Trump adviser noted the difference between DeSantiss’ posture toward Trump today and his attitude in 2018, when the then-gubernatorial candidate posted an ad mocking himself for being so resolutely pro-Trump.
DeSantis is definitely asserting his independence, the adviser said. And yeah, it’s hard not to see McConnell’s hand in all of this. Who benefits from a Trump-DeSantis feud? The Democrats. The media. And McConnell.
Says a third: There are no coincidences.
But a former Trump adviser said the ex-president was hypersensitive about the governor for one simple reason.
I don’t think he likes people being more popular than him, the former adviser said.
Marc Caputo reported from Miami and Jonathan Allen and Peter Nicholas reported from Washington, D.C.
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