Ron DeSantis Walks a Tightrope Over the Mar-a-Lago Search

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Republican politicians weighing how to react to the F.B.I.’s search of Mar-a-Lago last week had several options. Boiled down, they were:

1. Immediately denounce it as a “witch hunt” and threaten to investigate or even defund the bureau, while calling for Attorney General Merrick Garland’s impeachment.

2. Issue a cautious, place-holder statement expressing confidence in the process while sounding a note of concern about the potential for Justice Department overreach. Say little that could become embarrassing should more facts emerge that portray the former president’s conduct in a negative light.

3. Criticize Trump as having jeopardized the national security of the United States. Call on him to release the search warrant and explain what agents might have been looking for, and why he had not returned the documents they were seeking.

4. Await more information before commenting at all.

To defend or not to defend?

The political dilemma was particularly acute for Republicans who aspire to run for president in 2024 — requiring a high-wire act worthy of the Flying Wallendas.

Enter Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who is widely viewed as Trump’s most serious potential rival in a Republican primary race. The political world watches DeSantis’s every move nowadays, and many awaited his reaction to the search with bated breath.

Sometimes, mischief ensues.

In a clever but dishonest bit of online skulduggery, someone spliced together two separate videos to make it seem as if DeSantis had defended the F.B.I. The manipulated video, which circulated widely on social media, purports to show DeSantis tangling with Sean Hannity over the Fox News host’s use of the word “raid” to describe the F.B.I.’s actions.

“It’s not a raid,” DeSantis says in the edited video, adding, “they were serving valid process in accordance with the laws and Constitution of the United States.”

It would have been an explosive moment — the first real fireworks of the shadow 2024 presidential primary.

But it never happened.

In reality, DeSantis had been defending a 2020 search by law enforcement officers of the home of Rebekah Jones, a former data specialist for the state of Florida who had claimed that the DeSantis administration was manipulating information about the coronavirus pandemic.

Hannity, for one, called the video “FAKE NEWS” and demanded that Twitter remove it.

What DeSantis actually said was this tweet:

“The raid of MAL is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents, while people like Hunter Biden get treated with kid gloves,” DeSantis wrote. “Now the Regime is getting another 87k IRS agents to wield against its adversaries? Banana Republic.”

Note what was missing here: any defense of Trump’s conduct. DeSantis made similar remarks at a rally on Sunday for Kari Lake and Blake Masters, the Republican nominees for governor and Senate in Arizona — criticizing the Justice Department and raising examples of what he characterized as F.B.I. misconduct, while remaining silent on the former president’s alleged mishandling of classified documents.

The DeSantis dance

David Jolly, a former Republican member of Congress from Florida, said the “dance” between DeSantis and Trump was quietly consuming both camps behind the scenes.

Trump has periodically noted — accurately — that he remains the most popular Republican in hypothetical 2024 primary matchups, with DeSantis a distant second. But the two have yet to spar in earnest.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Instead, they have been circling each other like cage fighters prowling the ring before a match.

Allies of DeSantis have spun up “Ready for Ron,” a super PAC backing the Florida governor’s potential candidacy — even as he insists that he is focused on his re-election in Florida and that he has no connection to the effort. (Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican operative who is leading the super PAC, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Yet DeSantis has also courted Trump’s donors, and occasionally criticized the former president’s handling of the pandemic. Trump allies have warily eyed his maneuvering, while talking down DeSantis to reporters as an overrated political talent.

According to Jolly, “the smartest thing Trump could do is declare right now.”

That, he said, could be “the catalyzing moment that squeezes everybody else” out of the Republican field by forcing potential contenders like DeSantis to either defend Trump more aggressively or distance themselves from the former president’s legal woes.

But if Trump cleared the decks to gear up for a third presidential bid by stoking anti-government tension over his legal difficulties, Jolly added, he would be creating “one of the most dangerous moments I think our country could face.”

The silent treatment

Some might say the politically savvy course of action for Republicans would be to choose the fourth option from the menu above: Say nothing.

That’s what Charlie Dent, a former member of Congress from Pennsylvania, suggested his fellow Republicans ought to have done as the news emerged that federal agents had searched Trump’s home.

“At a time like this, my advice to G.O.P. members would be to show restraint and be circumspect in their public comments,” said Dent, who retired in 2018 rather than face re-election after becoming one of the more reliable critics of Trump’s conduct as president.

“With Trump,” Dent added, “there’s always more to the story — and it’s usually not very good.”

As the week wore on, that advice appeared increasingly sound.

News outlets, including this one, reported that the F.B.I. was looking to retrieve highly classified documents that Trump or one of his aides had taken from the White House and stashed at the former president’s private club and residence in West Palm Beach.

Some of the documents, The Washington Post reported, pertained to nuclear weapons — among the most sensitive materials in the federal government’s possession.

Yet staying silent is not what many Republicans did. Let’s briefly review what happened:

  • Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, wrote an opinion essay for Fox News that described the search as “part of a pattern of bureaucratic abuse against Trump.”

  • Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the highest-ranking Republican in the House, issued a clear threat to the Justice Department, saying that Republicans planned to “conduct immediate oversight” of the agency. “Attorney General Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar,” McCarthy said.

  • Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said the F.B.I. had committed an “abuse of power at the highest levels.”

  • Representative Jim Jordan, a key Trump ally, called on Garland and Christopher Wray, the F.B.I.’s Trump-appointed director, to testify about the search before the House Judiciary Committee.

  • Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, declined to comment on the search during a trip to visit flood-ravaged communities in his native Kentucky.

  • Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia called on Congress to “defund the F.B.I.”

In the last few days, however, as fresh information has dribbled out about why the Justice Department deemed it necessary to force its way into Mar-a-Lago, most elected Republicans have settled on a posture similar to DeSantis’s: ripping the F.B.I. and Justice Department as having overreached, while declining to back Trump outright.

In a revealing appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, urged the department to release more information about the “justification for this raid.”

But he quickly veered toward more favorable political terrain.

“Right now, with the 2022 midterms coming up,” Rounds said, “we’d much prefer to focus on what the policies are right now that are hurting our economy.”

What to read

  • Legal pressures on Donald Trump and his close allies have intensified further: Prosecutors informed Rudolph Giuliani, his former personal lawyer, that he was a target of a wide-ranging criminal investigation into election interference in Georgia.

  • Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin are pushing intensely to take greater control over the state’s voting infrastructure. But whether that happens could depend on two huge elections, one in November and one in April, Reid Epstein writes.

  • The Republicans’ Senate campaign committee has cut its television ad reservations in three critical battleground states for the fall, a likely sign of financial troubles, Shane Goldmacher reports.

  • With Liz Cheney facing a near-certain defeat tomorrow in her House primary, it is the likely end of the Cheney family’s two-generation dynasty in Wyoming, as well as the passing of a less tribal and more clubby and substance-oriented brand of politics. Jonathan Martin has the story.

— Blake

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