Alex Foarty and Bianca Padro Ocasio
McClatchy Washington Bureau
PALM BEACH, Fla. — Donald Trump’s presidential announcement Tuesday included the usual rhetorical targets of China, the news media and President Joe Biden.
One name, however, was conspicuously absent from the former president’s lips: Ron DeSantis.
Saying he wanted to keep the night “elegant,” Trump refrained from mentioning the Republican widely considered his top rival for the GOP presidential nomination, instead training his ire on the incumbent president who defeated him in 2020 and touting himself as the one Republican capable of restoring the country’s greatness.
“In order to make America great and glorious again, I tonight am announcing my candidacy for president of the United States,” Trump said inside the opulent Grand Ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. “America’s comeback starts right now.”
Trump’s decision reopens a tumultuous chapter in American politics, one in which Trump’s fans adored his blunt style but critics felt he tore at the country’s social fabric — criticism that, along with concerns over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 George Floyd racial justice protests, ultimately undermined his reelection campaign.
Trump, 76, is seeking to become the first president since Grover Cleveland in 1893 to win the presidency after losing a White House race. If he wins the general election in 2024, he would be the nation’s 45th and 47th president.
Inside his Mar-a-Lago club, hundreds of supporters packed the opulent Grand Ballroom in the hours before Trump took the stage, greeting each other as if gathering for a glitzy reunion. Two “Make America Great Again!” signs framed the podium while, in the back of the room, dozens of reporters captured the moment.
During his announcement, Trump alluded to the midterm elections a week ago, in which the Republican Party did not live up to its expected performance, and a number of Trump’s own endorsed candidates in key races lost their elections. While Republicans are on the verge of taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats still control the U.S. Senate.
“Much criticism is being placed on the fact that the Republican Party should’ve done better and frankly, much of this blame is correct,” Trump said. “But the citizens of our country have not yet realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through… they don’t quite feel it yet but they will very soon.”
He added that, by 2024, “it will sadly be much worse.”
“The voting will be much different in 2024,” he predicted.
Republican primary comes first
Before facing a likely rematch Biden, however, Trump must first win the GOP presidential primary against a list of potential rivals that includes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence. Biden will turn 80 on Sunday. Pence is 63 and DeSantis is 44.
Trump begins the presidential race, according to most data, in the pole position, leading all of his competitors but falling short of an outright majority of support from Republican voters at this early stage.
A survey from Politico/Morning Consult released this week, for instance, found him winning 47% in a hypothetical GOP primary.
DeSantis was the next closest competitor, receiving 33% support.
Trump’s declaration comes against the backdrop of his continued refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, which he lost, insisting without evidence that Biden stole the race from him. Trump’s repeated claims culminated on Jan. 6, 2021, when a group of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and forced lawmakers to evacuate the building, temporarily halting the election’s certification process.
The incident led 10 House Republicans to join Democrats in impeaching the then-president, the second time he had been impeached in four years. The Senate voted to acquit Trump in both cases.
Trump’s announcement also comes three months after the FBI executed a search-and-seizure operation at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, the site of his announcement Tuesday, related to his handling of classified documents.
During his speech, Trump reiterated his longstanding view that he is the target of a coordinated conspiracy among government and law enforcement officials to undermine his presidency.
“I’m a victim,” Trump said. “I will tell you, I’m a victim.”
He added: “We will dismantle the deep state and restore government by the people.”
Trump vs. DeSantis
Despite not mentioning him Tuesday, Trump and DeSantis have had an increasingly rocky relationship over the last year, with the governor unwilling to tamp down speculation that he’s preparing to run against the former president and Trump increasingly dismissive of his rival.
It hadn’t always been that way. When DeSantis sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Florida in 2018, he aggressively courted Trump’s support and styled himself after the GOP leader. Trump’s endorsement was widely seen as essential to DeSantis’ ultimate victory in the primary.
In a post on the social media website Truth Social on Tuesday, Trump even linked to an old DeSantis campaign video in which, among other things, the then-gubernatorial candidate praises the Republican leader.
“Thanks, Ron!” Trump wrote.
But the Florida governor began to build a national reputation for himself during the coronavirus pandemic, when he moved to end economic lockdowns in defiance of the guidance from public health officials. A series of culture war fights in Florida earlier this year further bolstered his reputation, and by the summer, conservatives across the country were regularly discussing DeSantis as a possible presidential candidate.
Attention on the governor further increased after the midterm election, after a disappointing night for Republicans saw them lose winnable races in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nevada even as DeSantis romped to a huge victory.
The fiscally conservative group Club for Growth, whose leaders have been publicly critical of Trump, released a poll this week showing DeSantis leading Trump by 11 percentage points in Iowa, 48% to 37%, and 15 percentage points in New Hampshire, 52% to 37%, in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with GOP primary voters. The same poll had found Trump leading DeSantis comfortably in both states before the election.
Trump had begun to fight back even before his announcement Tuesday. He publicly snubbed DeSantis before the election, choosing to hold a rally in Miami with GOP Sen. Marco Rubio in which the governor was conspicuously absent. The day before the election, at an event in Iowa, Trump coined a new nickname for the governor, calling him “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
He escalated his attacks after the election, issuing a lengthy statement lambasting his Republican rival after a series of conservative media outlets dubbed DeSantis the future of the party.
“The Fake News asks him if he’s going to run if President Trump runs, and he says, ‘I’m only focused on the governor’s race, I’m not looking into the future,’ ” Trump said. “Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer.”
Lindell takes aim
Some of Trump’s supporters took the criticism of the governor even further Tuesday. Mike Lindell, the businessman and noted Trump advocate, told reporters at Mar-a-Lago before Trump’s speech that any candidate who takes on the former president in a primary is “wasting their time and their money.”
“DeSantis should go, ‘Um, yes I endorse him,’ ” Lindell said. “I’m sure that’s what he’s probably waiting for right now, you should call him up right now and ask him. You should call up Ron and say, ‘Ron, are you going to endorse President Trump when he says he’s running tonight?’ ”
Some DeSantis allies were eager to tout the governor as the party’s best potential candidate. Ed Rollins, chief political strategist for the group “Ready for Ron,” which is urging DeSantis to run for president, said in a statement that he is a “politician with savvy instincts.”
“While others may focus on insults, ego, or media hype, DeSantis is focused on service and results,” said Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign.
DeSantis himself, however, has yet to say whether he will run for president, much less lay out a timetable for when he would declare as a candidate. He’s also shown little appetite for responding to Trump’s barbs publicly, preferring instead to say he’s focused on his job as governor.
When asked Tuesday about Trump’s criticism of him, DeSantis pivoted to an attack on the “corporate media” to make a broader point about how he thinks the success he’s had as governor has created a lot of enemies.
“One of the things I’ve learned in this job is when you’re leading, when you’re getting things done, you take incoming fire,” said DeSantis, who did not specifically mention Trump in his response. “That’s just the nature of it.”
Critics, he added, should “check out the scoreboard.”
“The fact of the matter is it was the greatest Republican victory in the history of the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “At the end of the day, I think people respond to the leadership, they respond to the results.”
DeSantis is not the only potential Trump rival in the GOP primary. In addition to Pence, Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, are also widely seen as considering a run for office, among a dozen or more other possible contenders.
Shortly before his speech, Trump filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission declaring himself a candidate for president.
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