(CNN) — Breaking his silence on Donald Trump’s legal troubles, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday criticized the Manhattan district attorney who is pursuing charges against the former president and vowed his office would not be involved if the matter trickles into Trump’s adopted home state.
But DeSantis, a rising rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, stopped well short of offering support for the former president and instead seemed to poke fun at the situation Trump has found himself in as he attempts a political comeback and a third campaign for the White House. A grand jury is in the final stages of determining whether Trump should face charges over an alleged payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels related to a supposed affair.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said as laughter broke out at a news conference in Panama City, Florida. “I just, I can’t speak to that.”
DeSantis added: “I’ve got real issues to deal with here in the state of Florida.”
The dismissive quips traveled quickly across the state to Mar-a-Lago, where Trump has decamped while he awaits for word on the New York grand jury’s findings. His allies immediately started attacking DeSantis across social media, suggesting he would face a political price for failing to recognize Republicans are rallying around Trump amid his mounting legal threats.
“Ron DeSantis doesn’t think the weaponization of our legal system is an ‘issue that actually matters to people,'” tweeted the Trump-aligned Super PAC Make America Great Again Inc.
The episode Monday was illustrative of the increasingly fraught rivalry between two of the GOP’s biggest stars as they battle for party supremacy — one made more awkward by their proximity inside the Sunshine State. Trump has suggested his arrest is forthcoming, and if he is in Florida at that moment, it could require a coordinated effort by police in DeSantis’ state.
DeSantis said he is not aware of any arrangements with local law enforcement regarding Trump, and he said he had “no interest in getting involved in some type of manufactured circus.”
The delayed remarks by DeSantis stand in stark contrast to the forceful defense he offered on Trump’s behalf last August when federal authorities seized documents from the former president’s Palm Beach estate. Just hours after the raid, DeSantis on Twitter called the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the regime’s political opponents, while people like Hunter Biden get treated with kid gloves.”
But there was no such tweet this time from DeSantis, who had remained quiet for days amid reports that a New York grand jury was interviewing witnesses and has largely avoided discussing Trump at all amid escalating attacks from the former president and his allies. DeSantis instead last week held events focused on relief for Hurricane Ian victims and the pandemic. He posted a picture from the World Baseball Classic picture standing next to the Miami Marlins mascot.
Over the weekend, as other Republicans criticized Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, for pursuing charges in a case that dates back to the 2016 election, Trump allies engaged in a coordinated pressure campaign to get DeSantis to speak out in defense of the former president.
“Thank you, Vice President @Mike_Pence and @VivekGRamaswamy, for pointing out how Radical Left Democrats are trying to divide our Country in the name of Partisan Politics,” Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller wrote on Twitter. “Radio silence from Gov. @RonDeSantisFL and Amb. @NikkiHaley.”
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., wrote in a tweet on Sunday: “Pay attention to which Republicans spoke out against this corrupt BS immediately and who sat on their hands and waited to see which way the wind was blowing.”
MAGA, Inc sent several emails tracking which Republicans had commented on the potential criminal charges and hitting DeSantis for “remaining silent.” Trump allies acknowledged that this was a concerted effort to force DeSantis to weigh in on the matter, believing that he would have to offer support to Trump.
When DeSantis finally weighed in Monday, it came during an unrelated press conference about central bank digital currencies, a recent area of concern among some conservatives but hardly the topic of the day, given the revelations about Trump’s legal case. He didn’t address Trump’s legal situation until asked by an individual from the Florida Standard, a conservative website friendly to DeSantis.
DeSantis echoed other criticism of Bragg, accusing the Democrat of seeking charges against Trump for political reasons. He compared Bragg to the local state attorney in Tampa, Andrew Warren, who DeSantis controversially removed from office last year over his politics, and linked them both to George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire and progressive donor often at the center of conservative conspiracies.
“If you have a prosecutor who is ignoring crimes happening every single day in his jurisdiction, and he chooses to go back many, many years ago to try to use something about porn star hush money payments, you know, that’s an example of pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office, and I think that that’s fundamentally wrong,” DeSantis said.
But DeSantis also seemed to downplay Bragg’s pursuit of Trump as a lesser concern compared to issues related to crime in the city.
“That’s bad, but the real victims are ordinary New Yorkers, ordinary Americans in all these different jurisdictions that they get victimized every day because of the reckless political agenda that the Soros DAs bring to their job,” he said. “They ignore crime and they empower criminals.”
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