Updated May 4, 2023, 8:01am EDT

Donald Trump’s dig at Ron DeSantis over Disney wasn’t a random attack

REUTERS/Octavio Jones

Sign up for Semafor Principals: An insider’s guide to power in D.C. Read it now.

Title icon

The News

Last month, Trump took to Truth Social to levy a new (and for many, unexpected) attack against Ron DeSantis: His war with Disney was a disaster.

“DeSanctus is being absolutely destroyed by Disney. His original P.R. plan fizzled, so now he’s going back with a new one in order to save face,” Trump wrote. “Disney’s next move will be the announcement that no more money will be invested in Florida because of the Governor - In fact, they could even announce a slow withdrawal or sale of certain properties, or the whole thing. Watch! That would be a killer. In the meantime, this is all so unnecessary, a political STUNT!”

On the surface, it was typical Trump: Scanning an opponent’s headlines and booing them from the sidelines, regardless of whether the criticism made much sense beyond the moment.

But the Truth Social post wasn’t one of Trump’s reflexive, stream-of-consciousness remarks — in fact, the campaign had been prepping its Disney attack for weeks prior to Trump’s post, according to two sources close to the former president. Nor was it a one-off moment: As the DeSantis-Disney war continues to ramp up and move to court, it’s expected to be a recurring focus as part of a broader plan to undermine DeSantis’ strengths before an expected run.

Title icon

Shelby's view

There are risks to going after DeSantis over Disney. His retaliation over the company’s opposition to a bill restricting discussion of topics around gender identity and sexuality in schools has earned him folk hero status with many social conservatives.


But there’s also likely a reason Trump’s campaign is so interested in telling a new version of the story around Disney and making it stick. It’s a central part of DeSantis’ self-styled reputation as a more ambitious and effective leader than Trump on issues that excite the MAGA base, an argument that’s expected to play a major role in any campaign against the former president. DeSantis’ emphasis on his election victories, as well as his early criticism of Trump for failing to rein in federal guidance on COVID-19, all fit this theme as well.

The Trump campaign is hoping they can reframe DeSantis’ Disney fight as a failure on its own terms, rather than litigate the company’s underlying behavior. The “main precursor” to Trump’s focus on the Disney fight, one person close to Trump said, came back in March, when Disney used a legal maneuver to retain influence over the area around the park that the state hoped to reassign to their own board. In that moment, his team began to see a clear path take shape to go after DeSantis.

“This isn’t about defending Disney,” a person close to Trump said. “This is about DeSantis’s lack of strength in preventing Disney from doing this.”

Some members of Trump’s team have also pointed to DeSantis’s recent half-joking proposal to put up a prison next door to the theme park as evidence that the Florida governor’s fight has gotten out of hand, and raised questions on how DeSantis’ escalations could affect everyday taxpayers and other Florida businesses, something Trump himself has brought up.

But the whole line of attack fits the campaign’s number one priority right now: Kneecapping DeSantis before he’s even officially a candidate by defining his brand early on.


“Operatives who are familiar with how a ‘crib kill’ strategy works recognize this Disney message is being tested and it will get a harder push if it works,” Michael Caputo, a close Trump ally who previously worked in his administration, said. “You’ll probably see digital and direct mail targeting Florida Republican primary voters.”

Title icon


In general, DeSantis' allies have tried to make Trump pay for what they argued was taking Disney’s side in a culture war over how children are exposed to these topics.

“It’s sad but unsurprising that Trump is now part of the DC establishment he once opposed. DeSantis is putting Florida first,” Erin Perrine, communications director for the pro-DeSantis PAC Never Back Down, told Semafor. “The people of Florida overwhelmingly support his courage to stand up to woke corporations, like Disney, as shown by his landslide re-election win. Disney is trying to overrun the will of the people and Donald Trump is encouraging their woke behavior, but DeSantis never backs down.”

There’s also reason to believe that the Disney story is still a political asset for DeSantis. A Reuters-Ipsos poll released in April found that 44% of Republicans viewed the governor more favorably after his battle with the company, versus 19% who said they liked him less.

Title icon

Room for Disagreement

Weighing in on the Disney fight, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board warned that “nobody emerges from this looking good.” The board argued that Trump should “be critical of Disney’s woke turn” and suggested his remarks against DeSantis proved that “his only abiding political conviction is personal advantage.”

Title icon

Know More

  • Trump’s team is not the only campaign focused on Disney: Nikki Haley invited Disney to move to South Carolina while Stand for America, a leadership PAC backing her candidacy, went on the attack as well. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie also slammed DeSantis during a Semafor event, suggesting he was outsmarted by Disney and had betrayed a core tenet of conservatism by getting in “the business of business.”