Former President Donald Trump is intensifying his attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, calling him disloyal and saying that his political career would have been over had he not endorsed his ultimately successful 2018 campaign.
“He was dead as a dog, he was a dead politician. He would have been working perhaps for a law firm or doing something else,” Trump told a small group of reporters aboard his plane on Monday afternoon en route to Iowa, where he was to make an appearance that evening.
Asked if he regretted endorsing DeSantis for governor in 2018, Trump responded: “Yeah maybe, this guy was dead. He was dead as a doornail. … I might say that.”
Trump spent nearly 10 minutes going after DeSantis, who is widely viewed as his most formidable challenger for the Republican nomination. The Florida governor, who is expected to launch his campaign following the end of the state’s legislative session in May, has been embarking on a swing of early primary states to promote his newly released memoir — including in Iowa, where he appeared on Friday.
Trump contended that DeSantis pleaded with him for an endorsement during his first run for governor, when polls showed him trailing his primary challenger, then-Florida agricultural commissioner Adam Putnam.
“I said ‘You are so dead right now you are not going, no endorsement is going to save you. George Washington won’t save you.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you, if you endorse me, I have a chance,’” Trump said.
Trump said he eventually decided to support DeSantis because he defended him while he was facing a Democratic-led impeachment into allegations that he pressured Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy into investigating Joe Biden’s family. In fact, DeSantis got on Trump’s radar by defending him from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election.
DeSantis went on to win the primary while heavily promoting his support from Trump. He then prevailed in the general election over Democrat Andrew Gillum. Trump said that ahead of the general election, DeSantis had harbored doubts that he would win.
Trump said that he was later dismayed when DeSantis, at that point serving as governor, declined to answer questions about whether he would challenge Trump for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
Trump said he last spoke with DeSantis several months ago. His remarks signal that he is intensely focused on DeSantis, who he conceded was “probably” his most serious challenger. Behind the scenes, the former president’s team has been conducting polling research in order to gauge the governor’s weaknesses. There was one attack Trump refused to make, however: calling DeSantis “Meatball Ron.” It had been reported that Trump was workshopping the nickname. But he dismissed the idea, calling the moniker “too crude.”
During another gaggle with reporters on the flight back to West Palm Beach late in the evening, Trump doubled down on his remarks about DeSantis. The former president called the governor a flip-flopper, ridiculed his debate skills and likened him to establishment-aligned Republicans like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“Remember this: If it weren’t for me, Ron DeSanctimonious would right now be working probably at a law firm, or maybe a Pizza Hut, I don’t know.”
A DeSantis spokesperson declined to comment on Trump’s remarks. The governor has largely avoided engaging with the former president, saying recently that doesn’t spend his time “trying to smear other Republicans.”
Trump was also asked about comments made by former Vice President Mike Pence over the weekend at the Gridiron Dinner, in which he called Jan. 6 a “disgrace” and said Trump should be held “accountable” for the deadly assault on the Capitol.
Pence is now contemplating challenging Trump for the nomination.
“I heard his statement, and I guess he decided that being nice isn’t working because he’s at 3 percent in the polls, so he figured he might as well not be nice any longer,” Trump said.