MIAMI — When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went on a top political podcast last week, he panned the Covid lockdowns former President Donald Trump encouraged early in the coronavirus pandemic.
The remarks made for irresistible headlines — the two GOP heavyweights and possible 2024 contenders were feuding. Just days before, Trump had appeared to take a swipe at DeSantis, calling politicians who have refused to reveal their vaccination status “gutless.”
Both camps have denied any real friction, and they blamed “the media” for overhyping tensions, but Trump advisers say they see a hidden hand at play: that of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is in a pitched battle with Trump over the future of the Republican Party in political races all over the country.
They pointed to the podcast itself, because DeSantis made the attention-grabbing remarks on Ruthless, which is co-hosted by McConnell’s longtime adviser Josh Holmes. Shortly after the podcast was posted Friday, Twitter was flooded with the suggestion that DeSantis had knocked Trump by saying one of his biggest regrets was not having been “louder” about the harms of the lockdowns intended to help slow the spread of the virus.
Video: Former President Trump takes aim at Florida Governor Desantis
To many in Trump’s camp, it all looked like a setup.
“I like Josh. Josh is great. But he’s a wholly owned subsidiary of McConnell World. And there’s no way you can tell me that this was all a coincidence,” a top Trump adviser said, echoing four others who spoke on condition of anonymity because they didn’t have authorization to speak publicly about private discussions in his political shop.
“Also, DeSantis and his staff knew what they were doing. How many Florida general election voters are listening to the Ruthless podcast?” the adviser asked in an interview. “Now, that said, they might have been hoping for more out of Ron, because, let’s face it, he didn’t really criticize Trump. But they knew the media would instantly jump on it and wish-cast it into existence.”
The adviser said McConnell clearly sees DeSantis as a lesser of two evils and a way to annoy Trump.
Holmes, who said he didn’t want to get into a dispute over the interview, vehemently denied any ill intent toward Trump or any coordination with McConnell. He declined to comment further beyond denying the speculation about McConnell’s involvement, laughing it off as “insane.”
A Republican operative scoffed at the notion that McConnell, who has said publicly that he would “absolutely” support Trump if he were to win the 2024 Republican nomination, is plotting to subvert his chances.
“I’m sure Josh Holmes would like you to believe that Mitch McConnell is behind the scenes, moving pieces against Trump,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist. “But I don’t think that’s it. I think that McConnell is wholly owned by Trump.”
McConnell’s Senate spokesman declined to comment, directing questions to John Ashbrook, who speaks for him on matters of electoral politics and is Holmes’ business partner. In a brief message, Ashbrook indicated that McConnell wouldn’t respond to “background sniping.”
But there’s no dispute that Trump and McConnell have refused to speak to each other since a mob of Trump’s supporters rioted in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop the counting of the electoral votes confirming President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. McConnell criticized Trump for lying about his loss, and Trump has repeatedly called McConnell an “old crow” and a fake Republican while urging GOP senators to oust him as leader.
Trump is backing a slate of Republican senatorial candidate across the country this year. In Alaska, the Trump-backed candidate Kelly Tshibaka, who is challenging Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an ally of McConnell, has pledged not to support McConnell for his leadership post. Trump is also pressuring candidates from Nevada to Alabama to North Carolina to do the same.
In Arizona, McConnell is striking back by trying to recruit Gov. Doug Ducey — a Trump foe — to run for the Senate. Trump has pledged never to back Ducey after he refused to help him overturn the 2020 presidential election results in the state.
“McConnell asked me to push on Ducey when I talked to him a month ago when I was in D.C.,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor. He added that he has texted Ducey since then but not made a pitch in person.
John McLaughlin, who polls for Trump, said: “The Senate leader’s poll numbers aren’t as strong as President Trump’s. What McConnell can do is direct money and resources to candidates from Washington. That’s about it.”
McConnell is also an ally of and a contributor to the campaign of Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, whom Trump has targeted after she voted to impeach him in response to the Jan. 6 riot. She faces a primary challenger.
In Florida, DeSantis is running for his second and final term this year, not for the Senate — a point Trump backers are quick to note.
“Everything I hear is that the governor is focused on re-election,” McLaughlin said. He added: “Trump would crush the field if anyone wanted to run against him in the 2024 Republican primary. And most say they won’t.”
But it’s the speculation about DeSantis’ potential plans for 2024 that has put him at cross-purposes with Trump — and which may have him caught him in the crossfire between Trump and McConnell. As one of the most outspoken and high-profile governors resisting Covid lockdowns and mandates, DeSantis has steadily risen as a national figure in GOP politics and is polling as a Republican primary front-runner for president in 2024 if Trump doesn’t run himself.
“There are stories out now about Trump and DeSantis snapping towels at each other,” said John Bolton, who was national security adviser in the Trump White House, “because Trump can see the same thing that everyone else can: DeSantis is getting ready [to run] no matter what Trump does.”
The Republican love for DeSantis and the favorable coverage he has earned in conservative media circles have irked Trump for months, insiders say, as has DeSantis’ refusal to say publicly that he wouldn’t run against Trump for president. Trump is fond of noting that he “made” DeSantis in 2018 by endorsing him when he was little-known member of Congress, which enabled him to win the GOP gubernatorial primary against a better-known and better-funded rival.
And when Trump swiped at “gutless” politicians last week, it looked like a defining moment in Republican politics and a perfect topic to address on the Ruthless podcast when DeSantis recorded it Thursday evening with Holmes in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Ruthless is consistently one of the most popular political podcasts in the country, and while it’s unabashedly pro-Republican, it’s not a pro-McConnell mouthpiece, nor is it remotely anti-Trump.
Of the 107 top conservatives interviewed on the show, McConnell has been on just once. Holmes, one of the early Republican voices to identify DeSantis as a top-tier Republican candidate for president if Trump didn’t run in 2024, asked DeSantis an open-ended question about whether there was “any animosity” between him and Trump.
DeSantis said no and blamed the media.
“I think this is what the media does,” he said. “You cannot fall for the bait. … You know what they’re trying to do, so just don’t take it. Just keep on keeping on.”
Moments later, Holmes’s co-host asked DeSantis about his regrets, prompting him to mention that he believes he should have more vocally opposed the Covid lockdowns in the spring of 2020 and should have opposed travel restrictions, which he had embraced. DeSantis criticized the government’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, by name — not Trump.
The comments were almost identical to remarks DeSantis had made months before, but the reaction from insiders and the media appeared to lend credence to the idea that DeSantis was gunning for Trump.
Even some allies of both men thought DeSantis was taking on Trump, his former benefactor.
“DeSantis doing a Josh Holmes podcast to thump Trump is not what I had on my bingo card,” said a Republican who spoke anonymously to avoid criticism. “This is a thing.”
A top Trump adviser noted the difference between DeSantis’ posture toward Trump today and his attitude in 2018, when he released an ad poking fun at himself for being so unabashedly pro-Trump.
“DeSantis is definitely asserting his independence,” the adviser said. “And yeah, it’s hard not to see the hand of McConnell in all this. Who benefits from a Trump-DeSantis feud? The Democrats. The media. And McConnell.”
Said a third: “There are no coincidences.”
But a former Trump adviser said the former president is hypersensitive about the governor for a simple reason.
“I don’t think he likes people being more popular than him,” the former adviser said.
Marc Caputo reported from Miami and Jonathan Allen and Peter Nicholas reported from Washington, D.C.