It was hard to find a better example of what it’s like to run against Donald Trump than Monday, which began with Ron DeSantis throwing a small rock at the former president over his alleged hush-money payment to a porn star and ended with Trump blind-firing a submachine gun of fact-free, gay-baiting innuendo in response.
“Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair, I just — I can’t speak to that,” DeSantis quipped during his Monday morning press conference, addressing weekend rumors fueled by the former president himself that Trump will soon be “arrested” in relation to the Manhattan District Attorney’s ongoing investigation.
DeSantis also made sure to attack the case itself, suggesting it was “an example of pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office.”
A few hours later, Trump wrote on Truth Social that the Florida governor could be “unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman (or possibly a man!) with false accusations.” He then deleted that post to add the suggestion that the accuser could be “underage.”
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DeSantis' comment made news because it marked the first time in recent memory that a Republican candidate targeted Trump over his personal scandals.
“The fact that this little swipe is so notable just goes to show you how unwilling Republicans have been throughout Trump’s existence as a Republican candidate to condemn him … They're always waiting for someone else to get rid of him,” The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell told Semafor.
But while DeSantis may have succeeded in showing that he is willing to stand up to Trump, other Republicans aren’t rushing to attack the former president over widely-known details about his personal life.
The likeliest candidate to run on that contrast, pollster Patrick Ruffini recently suggested, is former Vice President Mike Pence, a religious conservative who has been married for 37 years.
A Pence advisor Monday swatted away the idea that he’ll attack Trump directly on this front.
“I think that Mike Pence’s conduct and Mike Pence’s words and how he handles himself – whether it's at events and interviews or on the debate stage – is probably a better juxtaposition than trying to appear as though he's morally superior than anybody else,” a Pence advisor told Semafor. “I don't know that that's ever worked for anyone.”
“It’s not a novel attack because it’s not news to anybody, and Republican voters haven’t cared so far,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2016.
Room for Disagreement
More Republicans are showing signs of being willing to address Trump’s scandals head on, suggesting it could become a common criticism against the former president: Rep. Chip Roy, who recently endorsed DeSantis for president, told Glenn Beck on Monday that Trump “clearly paid a porn star off to hush up right before an election.”
- Trump was making private comments and asking around about the very same DeSantis claim he posted about on Monday afternoon, according to Rolling Stone — indicating the former president has been thinking about his own line of attack for months now.
- New polling out today from the progressive firm Navigator has Democrats believing the state and federal investigations into Trump are becoming the true political liability for him. The survey, shared early with Semafor, shows that 57% of voters believe Trump “committed a crime” during his time in office, including 59% of independents and a quarter of Republicans.
- Bryan Bennett, senior director of polling and analysis at The Hub Project, told Semafor there may be more of an appetite among Republican voters for DeSantis or another prospective GOP candidate who holds similar views to Trump “but doesn’t carry the same baggage.”
— with Morgan Chalfant