Trump hits DeSantis: He’s a Covid skeptic phony
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Since announcing in November, Donald Trump had an unconventional start to his third presidential campaign: He did not campaign at all.
That’s now changing, and part of the reason the former president is holding his first formal campaign events of 2024 in New Hampshire and South Carolina this weekend is that others may be forcing his hand.
In recent days, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called Trump and suggested she would be announcing her decision to enter the presidential race soon, a conversation that a person familiar with it described as cordial.
“She called me and said she’d like to consider it. And I said you should do it,” Trump told reporters, noting that Haley once said she would not get in the race if Trump runs again.
But Haley may be only a modest challenge for Trump going forward. He also is on a collision course with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to jump into the race.
On Saturday, Trump took his sharpest swings at DeSantis to date, accusing the governor of “trying to rewrite history” over his response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Trump said DeSantis, who has been openly skeptical about government efforts to vaccinate people against the virus, “promoted the vaccine as much as anyone.” He praised governors who did not close down their states, noting that DeSantis ordered the closure of beaches and business in some parts of the state.
“When I hear that he might [run] I think it’s very disloyal,” Trump said.
As for the polls showing DeSantis beating him in key nominating states, Trump was dismissive.
“He won’t be leading, I got him elected,” he said. “I’m the one that chose him.”
For months Trump has been tucked away at his resort in Palm Beach, where he has hosted parties, sent out missives on his social media site Truth Social, played golf, and plotted out his next steps.
When he re-emerged on Saturday, flying to New Hampshire on his rehabbed Trump-branded 757 plane, he was determined to showcase himself as a candidate who still has the star power that catapulted him to the White House in 2016, and could once again elbow out a full field of Republican challengers.
“They said ‘he’s not doing rallies, he is not campaigning. Maybe he’s lost his step,’” Trump said at a meeting of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “I’m more angry now, and I’m more committed now than I ever was.”
Unlike 2020, when he ran unopposed as president, Trump is expected to have a field of Republican challengers to deal with this time around, beyond Haley. In anticipation of a crowded field, Trump’s campaign has compiled research on different potential candidates, according to an adviser. But Trump himself brushed off concerns that he is in danger of not securing the nomination. “I don’t think we have competition this time either, to be honest,” he said.
At the New Hampshire GOP meeting, Trump announced outgoing New Hampshire GOP Chair Stephen Stepanek would help oversee his campaign in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
And later in the day, at an appearance at the South Carolina statehouse, Trump announced endorsements from close ally and occasional golf buddy Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Republican Gov. Henry McMaster — a notable display of political muscle in Haley’s home state.
“The good news for the Republican Party is there are many, many talented people for years to come, but there is only one Donald Trump,” Graham said. “How many times have you heard we like Trump’s policies but we want somebody new. There are no Trump policies without Donald Trump.”
But Republican activists in New Hampshire are plainly divided. As Stepanek rejoins the Trump campaign, outgoing Vice Chair Pamela Tucker was recruiting volunteers for Ron to the Rescue, a super PAC formed after the midterms to boost DeSantis if he runs for president.
“We’re not never-Trumpers. We’re people who supported Trump. We love Trump. But we also know, more importantly, that we need to win. And Ron DeSantis has proven it time and time again now he can win elections,” Tucker said in an interview.
Matt Mayberry, a former congressional candidate and past New Hampshire GOP vice chair who supported Trump and has appeared at rallies with him in the state, said he isn’t taking sides yet in the still-forming primary.
“Let them all come,” he said.
Walter Stapleton, a GOP state representative from Claremont, sat toward the back of the auditorium wearing a Trump hat. But he said he, too, was undecided as to whom he’s backing in 2024.
“We have to put a candidate there that can win and maybe draw some of the independents and some of the voters from the other side of the aisle. I think DeSantis is the runner for that,” Stapleton said. “But I’m always willing to see if Trump will change his tack … and come across more balanced and more reasonable.”
During his speech in New Hampshire, Trump doled out red meat to a friendly crowd. The crowd roared with applause when he said that, if elected, he would “eliminate federal funding for any school that pushes critical race theory or left-wing gender ideology,” and support “direct election of school principals by the parents.”
His speech in New Hampshire echoed policy prescriptions he has released over the past several weeks in the form of video addresses, on issues such as education and protecting Social Security and Medicare. His team has seen those pronouncements as a way to maneuver back onto the political stage without having to organize the signature rallies that defined Trump’s prior bids.
Saturday, however, was about preparing for life back on the trail. The day comes as Trump has dipped in recent polling from New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Despite those surveys, Trump — the only declared candidate — consistently leads in national polls against a field of potential challengers, including DeSantis, his former vice president Mike Pence, and former members of his cabinet, including Mike Pompeo and Haley.
Trump said he welcomes the competition. “My attitude is, if they want to do it, they should do it. I have a good relationship with all of them.”
Trump was joined Saturday by some familiar faces from his White House days, including social media guru Dan Scavino, political director Brian Jack, and Jason Miller, as well as his campaign’s new top lieutenants, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita. The campaign has grown in recent months with a series of new hires and the establishment of a campaign headquarters in West Palm Beach, Florida, not far from Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago.
Along with staff from the Trump-allied Make America Great Again PAC, there are around 40 people working on Trump’s campaign or with the aligned PAC, according to multiple advisers.
There is a push for the campaign to be scrappier than it was in 2020, when a massive operation worked out of a slick office building in Arlington, Virginia. And that ethos, according to an adviser, extends to how Trump will approach fundraising with a focus on small-dollar donations over big donor events.
The Trump campaign will still be working with longtime adviser Brad Parscale’s Nucleus to send out emails but is also working with an entirely new vendor in 2020 — Campaign Inbox — to help with digital fundraising.
Both Trump and his team seemed eager on Saturday to get back to the hustle and bustle of his time in the White House, and there were signals he has kept his same habits. Following Trump on the plane on Saturday were his assistants — Natalie Harp, the young OAN-anchor turned aide, and Walt Nauta, who carried a giant stack of newspapers on board for Trump to read through on the flight. Margo Martin, a former White House press aide who has worked for Trump in Florida since his 2020 loss, watched from the tarmac as Trump boarded the plane with a wave.
“We need a President who is ready to hit the ground running on day one, and boy am I hitting the ground running,” Trump said later in the day.
Lisa Kashinsky contributed reporting from New Hampshire.
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