The Perfect Enemy | Feud between Trump and DeSantis highlights hardening GOP views on COVID-19, vaccines - Sarasota Herald-Tribune
May 26, 2022

Feud between Trump and DeSantis highlights hardening GOP views on COVID-19, vaccines – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Feud between Trump and DeSantis highlights hardening GOP views on COVID-19, vaccines  Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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When Donald Trump decided to take a veiled swipe at Ron DeSantis, he highlighted the governor’s equivocating over his COVID-19 vaccine booster shot status, calling politicians who refuse to disclose such information “gutless.”

When DeSantis appeared to fire back, he talked about regretting not pushing back against the nationwide lockdown Trump supported early in the pandemic to rein in the spread of the virus.

The increasing tensions between Trump and DeSantis have been the subject of intense interest because of the political implications. Could DeSantis challenge Trump in 2024? Will the rift between the GOP’s biggest stars divide the party?

Yet the indirect public snipping between the two Republican heavyweights also provides a window into the GOP’s evolution on COVID-19, raising questions about how far Republicans want to go to cater to fringe views about the virus, and particularly the vaccine.

Trump is gearing up to run for president again in 2024 and wants to take credit for the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines through his administration’s Operation Warp Speed, but faces resistance from the anti-vax movement, a resistance that is emboldened by politicians such as DeSantis who have catered to anti-vaxxers.

Trump reportedly is annoyed that DeSantis won’t rule out running against him in 2024, viewing it as disloyal because the former president’s endorsement sealed the governor’s primary victory in 2018.

The fact that Trump choose to express that annoyance by targeting the governor’s efforts not to alienate vaccine skeptics points to another sore spot for the former president, the paradox he faces in wanting to take credit for something that is rejected by the most hardcore elements of his base.

“Trump is justifiably proud of Operation Warp Speed and he is not going to walk away from one of the few signal accomplishments of his administration,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican strategist in Florida and outspoken Trump critic.

Trump was booed during an event in Dallas in December when he revealed that he got the booster shot.

‘Impeccable instincts’

DeSantis hasn’t made it any easier for Trump to promote the vaccine. The governor’s reluctance to encourage COVID shots further highlights Trump’s dilemma, and how far fringe views about the vaccine have spread on the right.

That DeSantis choose to fire back at Trump by seizing on his support for a national lockdown also demonstrates how COVID animates GOP politics right now. 

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Did Donald Trump slam Ron DeSantis? Former president attacks politicians over COVID boosters

DeSantis has gone as far right on COVID as any major figure in the party and has seen his star rise considerably because of it, emerging from the pandemic as possibly the most popular Republican figure other than Trump. In announcing that DeSantis would speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, American Conservative Union Chair Matt Schlapp hailed him as “America’s governor.” 

DeSantis achieved his newfound status by being aggressive in opposing COVID-19 mandates, including school closures, masking and required vaccination.

Yet Trump’s comments point to a potential weakness in the governor’s zeal not to be outflanked on the right on COVID issues. 

Asked about his booster status during a Fox News interview in December, DeSantis said: “I’ve done whatever I did, the normal shot, and that at the end of the day is people’s individual decisions about what they want to do.” 

DeSantis again declined to reveal his booster status during an even in Sarasota Friday.

“That’s something that I think people should just make their own decisions on,” DeSantis said when asked if he received the booster shot. “I’m not going to let that be a weapon for people to be able to use; I think it’s a private matter.”

By being coy about his booster status, DeSantis invited criticism that he isn’t forthright.

“Trump’s instincts in this regard are impeccable,” Stipanovich said. “He knows DeSantis is a hypocrite. He knows DeSantis has been boosted and won’t admit it because it’s inconsistent with his anti-vax signaling.” 

In the minds of some Republicans, Trump’s “gutless” comment was less about the vaccine and more about laying the early groundwork – should the two face off against each other – to paint DeSantis as another calculating politician who won’t give straight answers because he’s worried about the political implications. 

Asked about DeSantis deflecting on the booster shot question, former New Jersey governor and GOP candidate for president Chris Christie said during an interview this week with the Herald-Tribune that politicians who try to get “too cute” can get themselves in trouble.

“I would just say this as a general observation: when you get too cute playing politics it can often come back to bite you, so just tell the truth and you’d be much better off,” Christie said.

The responsible thing for DeSantis to do is publicly announce his vaccination status, Christie said.

“On Gov. DeSantis, like anybody else in public life, you should be fully disclosing this not because the public has a right to know … it’s because you’d want to set an example for people as a leader,” Christie said, adding: “Actions speak louder than words and showing people what you’re actually willing to do yourself tells them a lot about how you feel about an issue.”

Christie noted that the vaccines have been “extraordinarily effective in exactly what they promised to do,” which is prevent hospitalization and death.

As the omicron wave of the virus continues to rage, public health officials have promoted the vaccines as the most important tool in limiting the health impacts.

Nationwide, 63% of the population is fully vaccinated according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida is slightly above the national figure at 65% of the population fully vaccinated, but well below the most highly-vaccinated states, such as Vermont at 79%, Rhode Island at 78%, Maine at 77%, Connecticut and Massachusetts at 76%, New York at 73% and New Jersey at 72%.

Florida ranks near the middle of the pack on vaccinations even as omicron drives record COVID-19 infections and more than 63,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the state.

While DeSantis isn’t anti-vaccine, his efforts to downplay the importance of getting the shot in recent months have made him a darling of vaccine skeptics.

That view was reinforced this week when the DeSantis administration suspended Dr. Raul Pino, the head of the Florida Department of Health’s Orlando office, for encouraging his employees to get vaccinated and boosted.

“The decision to get vaccinated is a personal choice that should be free from coercion and mandates from employers,” the DOH said in a statement about Dr. Pino’s suspension.

Anti-vax wing

Trump’s attack further anointed DeSantis as the de facto head of the vaccine skeptic wing of the party.

Conversely, DeSantis’s comment about Trump’s lockdown support illustrates how hardened the GOPs position has become against nearly all COVID restrictions.

It’s a rare issue where Trump may be vulnerable on the right.

Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have engaged in veiled criticism of each other in recent days.

Republican leaders have been increasingly aggressive about opposing COVID-19 public health measures, making Trump’s decision to support a national lockdown now look far out of step with the party, even as DeSantis and most other GOP governors went along with it at the time.

Since then the GOP has rejected everything from mask mandates to vaccine requirements.

DeSantis convened the Florida Legislature in a special session last year to pass legislation outlawing vaccine mandates in Florida.

Such mandates have been common for years in settings from schools to the military.

Yet being anti mandate now is the orthodox view in the GOP, with Trump cheering the demise of President Joe Biden’s workplace vaccine mandate in a recent U.S Supreme Court decision.

The party is going further with leaders such as DeSantis, though, who now decline to promote in any meaningful way even voluntary vaccination.

Many on the far right are skeptical of the vaccines, a sentiment DeSantis appeared to be wary of when asked about his booster status.

“I know because I actively speak with people in that base, there’s a tremendous amount of pushback against the multiple vaccines,” said Martin Hyde, a Sarasota Republican running for Congress. “There’s a certain amount of indifference to omicron and a weariness of it and disappointment Trump is promoting the same narrative as” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, on boosters, which Hyde calls “Fauci juice.”

If DeSantis did get boosted, it could damage him in the eyes of some conservatives, added Hyde, who is trying to challenge U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan from the right, even as Trump has endorsed Buchanan.

“To the extent that his dog whistle is clearly to people who are vaccine hesitant and doubtful of the narrative, you can’t say and do that and attempt to court support from those people and then subsequently find out you did exactly that you said other people shouldn’t do,” said Hyde, adding: “If he has been boosted I think it would very much hurt him.”

Trump’s comments further put DeSantis on the spot about this booster status.

Former President Donald Trump talks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, during a visit to Lake Okeechobee and Herbert Hoover Dike at Canal Point, Fla., on March 29, 2019. Trump and DeSantis have exchanged veiled criticisms in recent days.

Yet even as Trump probes for weak spots in his record, DeSantis’ COVID-19 response has been broadly cheered within the GOP and set him up as the chief Republican alternative to the former president.

That threat is what seems to have provoked Trump and his allies.

Trump adviser Roger Stone jumped into the fray this week, attacking DeSantis for not stating he would step aside if the former president runs again in 2024. 

“I consider that to be an incredible act of disloyalty and ingratitude,” Stone said.

DeSantis could benefit from the desire among some within the GOP to close the book on the Trump era.

Christie breaks with Trump in Sarasota speech:Chris Christie to Trump on 2020 election: “Get over it.”

Booster status

“Clearly, President Trump elevated Ron DeSantis but arguably Ron DeSantis has run with it and created his own set of supporters,” said Hyde, adding: “Arguably on some things like COVID Ron DeSantis has gone a little bit further and probably enthralled himself with that element of the base more than the president.” 

“I think he’s as popular as you can possibly be with an element of the base,” Hyde added.

That DeSantis appears to be strong enough, at least for now, to take Trump’s criticism and dish some back shows how the party is moving on to some degree, and seeking new leaders.

“The hand that DeSantis is playing right now is if there’s no Trump I’m the guy, and in order to be that guy he is apparently willing to run some risks, and in the long run it might be the smart play,” Stipanovich said.

Trump’s booster broadside against DeSantis indicates he isn’t going to loosen his grip on the party willingly, though. Whether the governor can maintain his COVID balancing act in the face of bipartisan scrutiny remains to be seen.

So far DeSantis has proven prescient about what his party wants when it comes to pandemic policies and pronouncements. He appears to believe that placating the anti-vax movement is good politics for him in the short term. 

Yet Trump’s attack shows a growing bipartisan skepticism about the governor’s willingness to do whatever it takes to avoid alienating the extreme elements of his party on COVID.

“It’s a fair question and whether (DeSantis) ever answers it or not will tell us to an extent how aggressively he’s willing to move in that direction,” Hyde said of his booster status.

Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at zac.anderson@heraldtribune.com