ORLANDO, Fla. — House Republicans are coming under increased pressure to choose sides between former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the former uses a potential indictment in New York as an early loyalty test for the GOP.
While Republicans across the board — including DeSantis — have accused Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg of politicizing prosecutorial power in going after Trump over the Stormy Daniels hush-money case, lawmakers at the House GOP’s retreat in sunny central Florida nonetheless have been caught in a Mar-a-Lago vs. Tallahassee tug-of-war.
Trump allies, taking cues from the former president and members of his family, have implicitly raised the pressure — including at a retreat that was supposed to focus on the House GOP’s unity in power in its first months in Washington but has instead has been sideswiped by the Trump drama.
House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the only member of leadership to endorse Trump so far, offered some of her first criticism of DeSantis over his Monday comment about the Trump allegations — where he swatted Trump for associating with an adult-film star. DeSantis said he did not “know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”
“I think he’s gonna see slippage and support,” Stefanik said of DeSantis when asked about his comments. “He’s already seen slippage in the past couple of weeks. And I think you’re going to see President Trump continue to solidify this position in the Republican nomination.”
Stefanik, the only member of leadership to endorse Trump so far, lobbed some criticism toward DeSantis over his remarks about the Trump allegations. (Greg Nash)
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who has endorsed DeSantis even though the Florida governor has not yet launched a presidential campaign, took a shot at Trump similar to the one from DeSantis when he appeared Monday on conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s radio show.
“Look, at the end of the day, you cannot walk away from the fact that the former president clearly paid a porn star off to hush up right before an election. That occurred,” Roy said, while also adding that the Bragg probe was “banana republic stuff.”
Bragg has not yet officially made any decision on charging Trump over his role in directing payments to Daniels ahead of the 2016 election as she prepared to go public with a story about her affair with Trump. Federal prosecutors previously declined to pursue criminal charges against then-President Trump over the payment. Any charges would likely revolve around a state law relating to falsifying business records.
Republicans in Orlando and Washington, D.C., have been watching the drama with interest, wondering how it might affect the battle for control of their party in 2024.
While a number of Republicans have sought to keep a neutral stance at this early stage of the presidential process, the drama surrounding the potential New York indictment has made it more difficult.
Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) announced her official endorsement of Trump in a statement to The New York Times on Monday, indicating that Bragg’s “trying to cook up charges outside of the statute of limitation against Trump” was a factor in her decision to officially endorse. “This is unheard-of, and Americans should see it for what it is: an abuse of power and fascist overreach of the justice system,” Luna said.
Stefanik said that outrage over Bragg is a “unifying message” for Republicans, but also predicted that the looming charges will only add to Trump’s support.
“I have yet to see a flag for any other candidate in the Republican primary other than Donald Trump in my district. You drive around there still Trump flags everywhere, and I can guarantee even though I’m here at this retreat, there are more flags more signs going up in the past 48 hours than ever before.”
In announcing her endorsement of Trump’s 2024 presidential bid, Luna said that Bragg’s investigation played a role in her decision. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Trump’s family and allies have sought to use the potential charges as ammunition against DeSantis, who is widely seen as his primary rival for the 2024 GOP nomination.
DeSantis’s comments that he had “no interest in getting involved in some type of manufactured circus” by the Manhattan district attorney and would “spend my time on issues that actually matter to people” prompted a warning from the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., against staying neutral.
“Shouldn’t matter if you hate Trump or not, there isn’t any issue more real & more important to push back against than Dems weaponizing the government to target their political opponents. Any Republican who can’t figure that out, doesn’t truly understand what we’re all up against,” Trump Jr. tweeted on Monday.
That message is clearly meant for more Republicans than DeSantis, though many lawmakers in Orlando are still trying to find a middle-ground approach.
Most have sought to go on the attack against Bragg while not offering support for Trump’s calls for protests.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) promised probes into Bragg’s investigation, and chairs of key committees led by House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) followed up with a demand for testimony from Bragg.
But McCarthy on Tuesday said that Republicans were not necessarily defending Trump as they railed against the probe, giving some cover for Republicans who might support other candidates.
“It’s not here that we’re coming to defend President Trump. What we’re coming to defend is equal justice in America,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy has promised probes into Bragg’s investigation but has clarified that the probes are focused on defending “equal justice” rather than Trump. (Greg Nash)
McCarthy has kept up a warm relationship with the former president, who made calls to his detractors over the five-day Speaker election in January to get them to support McCarthy for Speaker.
The Speaker also said Sunday that DeSantis has done “an amazing job” as governor of Florida, but had not seen his comments about Trump.
McCarthy said he has not talked to Trump about the looming charges, and last spoke to the former president three weeks ago. Stefanik said that she spoke to Trump on Monday morning.
The Trump-DeSantis feud puts Florida lawmakers in a particularly tight spot.
When asked whether Trump is still seen as the head of the party, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) pointed to McCarthy as the leader.
“I will tell you right now, I think the leader of the party is the Speaker of the House,” Diaz-Balart said.
“I’m thinking makes it really cool that Florida could produce, you know, two great candidates,” said Rep. Carlos A. Giménez (R-Fla.). He added that the state “seems to be the shining star of the GOP right now, and our governor is doing a great job here.”
The general consensus among Republican lawmakers is that any charges against Trump could only help him in the 2024 primary and rally the GOP base in his defense.
“This is just gonna do nothing but make him even more popular,” said Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas), Trump’s former White House physician who has endorsed him. “I mean, it’s insane. I don’t know if they’re doing it because they want him to be the nominee. But that’s what’s gonna happen.”
Staunch Trump supporter Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), for her part, noted that DeSantis is not officially in the 2024 race.
“DeSantis is the governor of Florida. He is not a declared presidential candidate,” Greene said, adding that she is “not paying attention” to his statements because of that.