Updated Aug 1, 2023, 7:17am EDT

‘This belongs in the Smithsonian’: Inside the meme video operation that swallowed Ron DeSantis’ campaign

Semafor / Al Lucca

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The Scoop

Senior aides to Ron DeSantis oversaw the campaign’s high-risk strategy of laundering incendiary videos produced by their staff through allied anonymous Twitter accounts, a set of internal campaign communications obtained by Semafor reveals.

The videos include two that have created recurring distractions for his campaign in recent weeks: an anti-Trump video that featured a fascist symbol, and another that attacked Donald Trump for past comments supportive of LGBT rights.

The meme-filled videos emerged from a Signal channel called “War Room Creative Ideas,” screenshots of which were shared with Semafor and whose authenticity was confirmed by a second source familiar with the campaign.

The chat in Signal, an encrypted messaging app, offers the first clear look into the “war room” that has defined the Florida governor’s candidacy, and is presided over by his high-profile and confrontational director of rapid response, Christina Pushaw. The correspondence obtained by Semafor also offers a glimpse of a strategy that mixes digital aggression and (unsuccessful) attempts to keep the campaign’s own activities secret. The messages were set to disappear after one week.

Screenshots of the “War Room” chat reviewed by Semafor included staffers praising a widely-derided and since-deleted video — originally posted on an anonymous account, “Ron DeSantis Fancams” — that included a version of the Sonnenrad, a symbol associated with Nazi Germany.


“This belongs in the Smithsonian,” wrote Kyle Lamb, the campaign’s director of research and data, before the video blew up in the campaign’s face. He was among the 38 staffers laid off in recent weeks amid a campaign “reset.” Messages viewed by Semafor also show members of the War Room group actively sharing images to put in the video while it was in the editing process, though not the Sonnenrad symbol that was in the final version.

Pushaw used the Signal group to spread content to anonymous allies, the chat shows. She told junior staffers that they should keep making meme videos, while other aides also said they wanted to push out more videos, according to the person familiar with the campaign. The chat included other senior staffers among its dozen-plus members, including press secretary Bryan Griffin.

The “War Room” chat was also used to place more conventional opposition research with accounts on Twitter (which has since been renamed “X”). In one July 19 exchange viewed by Semafor, Pushaw shared a “fun” clip of Trump talking about China at a Fox News town hall. She asked the Signal group if anyone knew “any Anons who might want it,” adding that “if we post it or a named influencer posts it, it might get noted.”

Another staffer soon replied that they could send the video to “proud elephant,” referring to a Twitter account that has pushed out various pieces of pro-DeSantis content, including the anti-LGBT video that mixed clips of DeSantis with images from the film “American Psycho” and the “GigaChad,” a meme of a photoshopped bodybuilder. The ProudElephantUS account had just shared another China-related clip from the same event, leading the War Room chat member to think that “he might be interested.”

The campaign has never publicly confirmed or denied ownership over the LGBT and Sonnenrad videos, which staffers retweeted after they were posted by the anonymous accounts. They recently fired one aide, Nate Hochman, who shared the latter video and, according to an Axios report, created it.


The New York Times reported that the anti-LGBT video was also produced within the campaign. The creator of that video remains on staff, and the content was approved by senior staffers before being sent out, according to the person familiar with the campaign. The chat was shut down after the video featuring the Sonnenrad caused a national media firestorm, and an image of members being removed from the group was reviewed by Semafor.

The DeSantis campaign declined to answer questions about their staff’s role in overseeing the videos and whether DeSantis had directed any changes in the campaign in response to the subsequent firestorm around them.

In a Monday interview with Fox News, DeSantis defended the premise of the anti-LGBT video posted by ProudElephantUS, saying it was based on legitimate criticisms of Trump’s record.

“These things get shared, or whatever — and look, I’m responsible for it. Don’t get me wrong,” DeSantis said. “But the idea that I was sitting there, like — oh, share this video? No. It’s a rapid response thing.”

Semafor / Al Lucca
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Dave and Shelby's View

The Signal group offers a rare look at how DeSantis’ campaign sought to fight a meme war — and how its embrace of a rowdy corner of Twitter helped throw his campaign off track. They also make clear the videos were not the result of an individual staffer or two striking out on their own, but something that was embedded in the campaign’s operations, which are more chaotic than DeSantis’ image as a buttoned-down administrator might suggest.


The news comes as the “War Room,” and Pushaw in particular, have been under special scrutiny amid complaints from inside and outside the campaign that its message has been too erratic and focused on esoteric online fights that distract from the candidate’s own message. The Signal group suggests that other top DeSantis aides were, at minimum, looped in on her work with the “War Room.”

Pushaw recently drew attention by escalating what turned out to be a massive fight that roped in several prominent Black Republicans after she attacked Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla. over his heavily qualified criticism of Florida’s proposed education standards on slavery. She compared him to Vice President Kamala Harris.

In a separate political brawl, Pushaw tweeted over the weekend that Trump’s campaign had “scammed” donors to fund his legal fees, seemingly going further than DeSantis’ own attacks. When a Politico reporter asked DeSantis about the Pushaw comment on Monday after a speech on his new economic plan, he said he was “not familiar” with what she had said.

“At the end of the day, you know, we’re here to talk about restoring this economy,” DeSantis said. “If you ask voters, are they more interested in hearing about that, or the process stories about politics, I think that they want to hear about the country’s future.”

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Room for Disagreement

DeSantis has pushed back on the idea that his campaign is “too online,” saying that the “War Room” operation has a role in fighting off detractors on social media, but is not reflective of his broader message to the average voter.

“I think that there’s a place for that,” he told Megyn Kelly on her podcast last week. “But ultimately, the people in Iowa and New Hampshire, they’re not following the latest Twitter war. They’re following what’s going on in their lives, and I’m very cognizant of that.”

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  • The War Room was never a “rogue” operation. “His emphasis on social issues and culture war fights has plenty of critics on substance and strategy alike, but it’s the platform he’s chosen to take his stand on,” Shelby wrote earlier this month.
  • DeSantis is facing a challenge from other rivals competing to take the title of Trump’s top rival. Dave followed DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. in Iowa as their campaigns increasingly are on a collision course.
  • Pushaw tweets about 80 times a day, the Daily Dot calculated.