Skip to Content

Trump and DeSantis, once pandemic allies, are now gaslighting each other over Covid

<i>Getty Images</i><br/>Former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – both maligned by Democrats and medical experts for not doing enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus – are lately each trying to convince GOP voters that the other was too strict in responding to Covid-19.
Getty Images
Former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – both maligned by Democrats and medical experts for not doing enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus – are lately each trying to convince GOP voters that the other was too strict in responding to Covid-19.

By Steve Contorno, CNN

(CNN) — Former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – both maligned by Democrats and medical experts for not doing enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus – are lately each trying to convince GOP voters that the other was too strict in responding to Covid-19.

Their disparate recollections of the coronavirus’ arrival in 2020 were on full display as the 2024 presidential hopefuls campaigned New Hampshire last week. DeSantis, at a Tuesday town hall in Hollis, said Trump made a “catastrophic mistake” by putting Anthony Fauci in charge of the country’s coronavirus response. Speaking about 40 miles north and two hours later that same day, Trump told a Concord crowd that DeSantis “loved Fauci at the beginning.”

“I have statements about him with Fauci that are just, like, frankly devastating,” the former president said.

Though steadfast allies throughout much of the pandemic, Trump and DeSantis, as presidential primary rivals, agree on very little about what transpired during one of the most trying periods in their respective tenures in leadership. More than any other issue, Covid-19 has sparked an intensifying war of words between their two camps – replete with gaslighting and revisionism that has become commonplace in their early sparring. Both are selectively editing videos to make the other look supportive of lockdown measures dating back to a time when the two were largely in lockstep, instigating Twitter clashes and cries of foul from their allies.

Trump last month released an ad with clips from when DeSantis issued stay-at-home orders and shut down bars in the summer of 2020 during a surge of cases in Florida. The video, which dubbed DeSantis “Lockdown Ron,” failed to mention that the Florida governor was acting on recommendations from Trump’s White House when he limited movements in his state.

DeSantis’ team earlier in June posted to Twitter a video with AI-generated fake images of Trump hugging Fauci while criticizing the former president for not firing the then-head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Unsaid in the ad was that DeSantis had repeatedly praised Fauci early in the pandemic, calling him “really, really good and really, really helpful” and “really doing a good job.” A CNN KFile review found Trump began harshly criticizing Fauci much earlier than DeSantis.

Apparently forgotten was an Oval Office meeting in late April 2020, when Trump and DeSantis heaped praise on each other as they discussed plans for reopening Florida. Trump held poster boards for DeSantis as the governor laid out the “baby steps” he was taking to restart his state’s economy.

The clash over Covid-19 has kept in the forefront an issue that has defined the political fortunes of the two Republicans. Trump lost an election in part because of perceptions that he had not done enough to manage the crisis. Two years later, after bucking medical experts, reopening schools sooner than most and outlawing mask and vaccine mandates, DeSantis was reelected to a second term by 19 points – a victory he has framed as a vindication of his methods.

Trump has dismissed the conservative back-slapping of DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, insisting the governor’s performance wasn’t all that great.

“Even (Andrew) Cuomo did better,” Trump said of the former New York Democratic governor in a recent video, noting the raw death totals in each state – but not his own past praise of DeSantis.

DeSantis has mocked such criticism as unserious. When asked last week if he would support Trump if he’s the GOP nominee, DeSantis invoked the Cuomo comment in his deflection.

“So, what I would say is this, when you are saying that Cuomo did better on Covid than Florida did, you are revealing yourself to just be full of it,” DeSantis said.

Unclear is how much the pandemic will weigh on GOP voters when they choose their nominee. In a March CNN-SSRS poll, less than 1% of potential Republican primary voters mentioned Covid-19 in an open-ended question about which issue would be most important to their decision. Gallup findings released Thursday showed that 84% of Republicans think the pandemic is over and less than 10 percent of Republicans are worried about getting Covid-19.

Even in the early-nominating state of Nevada, which saw its economy and workforce damaged immensely by shutdowns to its casino industry, it’s not apparent that the pandemic will motivate voters in a Republican-on-Republican contest. One veteran GOP consultant in Nevada who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the two presidential candidates said many voters there remember Trump pushing to reopen the Las Vegas Strip against then-Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s prohibitions and holding rallies in Nevada in defiance of the state’s Covid-19 rules.

“If you’re pissed about Covid, you took it out on Steve Sisolak,” the consultant said. “You’re not taking it out on Donald Trump.”

DeSantis has campaigned seemingly on the assumption that voters still care about how leaders reacted to one of the most tumultuous periods in recent US history. By preemptively attacking DeSantis’ pandemic policies, Trump, too, appears aware that voters could see his top rival as stronger on the issue.

In a candid acknowledgement of his campaign strategy, Trump told Fox News recently that he doesn’t tout his administration’s role in funding and developing the Covid-19 vaccines at his campaign rallies because some people “hate the vaccines.”

“I really don’t want to talk about it because, as a Republican, it’s not a great thing to talk about because for some reason, it’s just not,” Trump said.

DeSantis, though, is eager to bring up vaccines. When a town hall attendee on Tuesday spoke about his own experience with potential side effects from a Covid-19 shot, DeSantis pounced with a 1,400-word response that accused the US Food and Drug Administration of being “captured by the pharmaceutical companies” and dismissing the effectiveness of the vaccine.

“One of the things I’ve been promising to do – and I’m the only guy that can do it – is have a reckoning for all this Covid stuff because government power was abused,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis was an early backer of the vaccine and enthusiastically opened makeshift clinics across his state to get shots into the arms of seniors. He appeared alongside a 100-year-old World War II veteran as the man received his first coronavirus shot on “Fox & Friends” in an event staged by his office.

But his posture shifted as conservative sentiment on the vaccine soured, and his administration became a hotbed for skepticism that dogged efforts to get more people inoculated against the coronavirus. Later, he turned entirely against the vaccine that Trump’s administration helped develop, with the governor’s health department issuing guidance against vaccinating children and young men that clashed with the medical consensus.

The shift became an early fault line in the fracturing relationship between Trump and DeSantis. When DeSantis refused to say in a 2021 interview if he had received a booster shot, Trump took a thinly veiled swipe at his former ally.

“I watched a couple politicians be interviewed and one of the questions was ‘Did you get a booster?’ Because they had the vaccine and they’re answering like – in other words, the answer is ‘yes’ but they don’t want to say it,” Trump told OAN in early 2022. “Because they’re gutless.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Kate Sullivan and Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KTVZ NewsChannel 21 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content