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The Governor Who Holds Trump’s Fate in His Hands

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Ron DeSantis wanted names.

We were in his office here in Florida’s Covid-shuttered Capitol, three reporters wearing masks spread out across from a non-masked DeSantis—stocky, suited and seated behind his desk stacked with thick binders and folders filled with county-by-county coronavirus data. He was flanked by two also maskless staffers and surrounded by carefully curated images and totems—snapshots of him in his Navy whites with his wife and their three young children, his gray Yale baseball jersey in a frame on the brown wood wall, down from a display of a fistful of his favorite James Madison-penned excerpts from the Federalist Papers.

At the beginning of our meeting, which his chief of staff billed as his first major “print” interview, we shared with DeSantis a small slice of what we had been hearing—a fuller, less flattering portrait of the just-turned-42-year-old Republican governor of the country’s biggest, most important swing state. People who knew him in his three terms in Congress say he was something of a sour solo act who walked the halls of the Hill with earbuds jammed in his ears, that donors and supporters say he is unusually uncharismatic for a manifestly successful politician and often can seem socially awkward, aloof and even a little ungrateful, that an array of critics and allies alike agree that he has a high IQ but a low EQ …

“… I don’t, I don’t—I, I just reject kind of the premise that you guys are putting out there,” he bristled. “Tell me who’s saying this.”

A tense few seconds of silence.

“Seriously,” DeSantis said. “Who is saying this?”

The notoriously media-averse DeSantis has always been uncomfortable talking about himself and maybe even more so hearing others talk about him. And people are talking about him a lot these days. As much as any current governor, DeSantis is a subject of national fixation because of Florida’s singular political importance to Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. But DeSantis remains something of a cipher, easily caricatured for the way he vaulted to this perch in 2018—on the strength of a collection of complimentary tweets and an endorsement from Trump. He is seen by many as not just Trump-tied but Trump-made. It’s an assessment that’s not wrong in the simplest sense—DeSantis has an open line to the president that he uses regularly—but it’s also an underselling of him, even a fundamental misreading.

The more accurate picture of DeSantis, revealed through more than 60 interviews with people who’ve watched him and worked with him and for him, strategists, consultants, operatives, lobbyists, friends and fellow pols, is not of a White House errand boy but of a stubbornly independent player whose personal ambition far exceeds any loyalty to the president. Indeed, DeSantis’ life is in many respects a far truer version of the story Trump always has told falsely about himself: self-made, supersmart, somehow destined for greatness.

DeSantis comes not from privilege and wealth but a legitimately middle-class background in the Tampa Bay area, the older of two children of a critical care nurse and a blue-collar installer of boxes that tracked television ratings for Nielsen, a genuinely accomplished athlete and standout student who graduated magna cum laude from Yale and cum laude from Harvard Law, a military veteran, and a true-believing, small-government conservative rather than an inveterate party flip-flopper and instinctive tweaker of grievance. While he shares a number of Trump traits—similarly transactional, similarly untrusting with a vanishingly small inner circle as proof, similarly allergic to apologizing, admitting doubt or accepting blame but usually less temper-tantrum reactive—he is more disciplined, diligent and strategic, a worker, a planner, an ultra-ambitious and efficient operator who rode the Tea Party wave into Congress, steered clear of Trump while trying to become a United States senator but then turned around and unabashedly used Fox News to embrace him—to use him—to become the youngest governor in America.

“DeSantis is one of the smartest, most calculated people I have ever met, and I don’t mean that negatively. He is constantly calculating,” said one of his longest-serving former advisers. “He does nothing haphazard.”

The pandemic, though, has put his relentless planning to the ultimate test. No governor, of course, has had an easy time this trying last half year, but the coronavirus comeuppance for DeSantis has been particularly harsh. The virus has killed nearly 13,000 people in Florida, the fifth most of any state, and its total tally of cases ranks third. The roller coaster of its Covid-19 narrative—the careless spring breakers, the relative control of the spread of April and May, the scary summer surge that made the state for a spell a global epicenter of the spreading sickness and prevented the Republican National Convention from happening in Jacksonville after Trump and organizers hastily tried to relocate it from Charlotte—has laid bare in a new way DeSantis’ less propitious personal traits and political liabilities.

Constitutionally leery of top-down edicts he sees as governmental overreach or interference with individual liberty, he’s been reluctant to impose a statewide mask mandate or shutdowns or restrictions to get people off beaches or out of bars. Often hewing to the Trump-driven White House playbook, he’s battled with school districts to open up, agitated for college football to be played and generally pushed the onus for solutions down to counties and local agencies only to occasionally overrule them when he disapproved. He’s shunted blame and clamored for credit. He’s cherry-picked statistics that are helpful and attempted to hide those that are less so. He’s appeared at a news conference wearing not two blue rubber gloves but oddly only one. He’s put a mask on wrong. He’s been heckled. He’s become a punchline in the Onion.

“He has shown zero leadership handling this pandemic, has shown zero empathy to the millions of our citizens who are scared and have lost loved ones,” said Nikki Fried, the state Agriculture Commissioner, lone statewide Democrat and likely 2022 gubernatorial candidate. “I think he thinks he has made all the right decision about the virus,” said a former DeSantis adviser. “The governor has a real skill for not blaming himself when one of his decisions goes wrong.”

Governors of Florida often have been measured by their performances in crises—usually hurricanes. And those that have been deemed to have done well—his predecessors like Rick Scott and Jeb Bush—have been rewarded politically. Not DeSantis. His approval ratings, enviable in his promising and surprisingly pragmatic first year in office, have plummeted. “DeSantis’ challenge was unprecedented—you have to give him that,” said Mac Stipanovich, but still—the Florida-based former Republican strategist resorted to scatological language to offer his appraisal of DeSantis’ pandemic response. “It ran down his leg.”

At his desk, DeSantis pushed back at these characterizations. “We see people dying—it sucks—but I think we took actions that needed to be taken,” he said. He alluded to the more positive press coverage of governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California and to his affiliation with Trump and to the realities of an election year and charged media bias. “I had no illusions of ever being treated favorably by the Acela media,” he said. “This is as hard as I’ve ever worked at anything, and I’ve had to work very hard in my life to get where I’m at.”

The stakes nonetheless are stark. The pandemic and DeSantis’ uneven response are threatening to jeopardize Trump’s reelection efforts in the state, his own reelection prospects in 2022, and his long-rumored presidential aspirations in 2024. In this fraught stretch run between now and November, he has the twin task of overseeing an ongoing public health crisis with no great or imminent fixes while simultaneously managing what is by many accounts an increasingly strained relationship with Trump and White House staff. Trump and DeSantis need each other and know it, say people who know them both—right now, though, the president might need the governor more. All of it encompasses a dynamic that could determine not just Trump’s political future but DeSantis’, too, intertwined as they are.

Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, called DeSantis a “friend” to the president and his campaign, describing their association as a “great partnership.” Said Matt Gaetz, the ardently pro-Trump congressman from the Florida Panhandle: “I don’t know if anyone talks to both of them as much as I do, and there is definitely a shared admiration.”

“Ron’s been a big supporter. The president was very instrumental in getting Ron the nomination and then elected, and they have a very close working relationship,” said a senior administration official. “The president is always available when Ron needs him.”

Cracks, though, are starting to show, people say privately. “Everybody in the White House besides the president can’t stand Ron anymore,” said a Florida operative working in Washington, “because they realize, and now I think the president is realizing, that he made Ron DeSantis, and Ron isn’t really doing anything to help him win Florida. He’s focused on his own political career right now.”

“They view him as all talk and no give,” said a former DeSantis aide. That he “isn’t appreciative enough,” said a wired Tallahassee lobbyist. “The president regularly believes that the governor forgets how good he has been to him,” said a GOP consultant. “Just about everyone around the president would have Ron’s head on a spike.”

Election Day is now less than seven weeks away. There’s next to no scenario in which Trump could lose DeSantis-led Florida and still win another four years in the Oval Office. Mounting chatter from Tallahassee to D.C. ponders the probability that Trump would attempt in the wake of a loss to tear down DeSantis the same way he once built him up—by tweet. And any endorsement from Trump likely would be for a primary opponent not the incumbent governor should DeSantis run for reelection. “If we lose the White House because of Florida,” said a former Florida operative with a foot in Trump world, “people will know who Ron DeSantis is.”

DeSantis, competitive and a political history buff, likes to tell people he had a better batting average at Yale than the 41st president of the United States. He hit .313 in his four years in New Haven. George H.W. Bush hit .224.

As an all-around player, said John Stuper, his coach at Yale, DeSantis consistently batted at the top of the order and played left field. He was a subpar thrower but a reliable hitter and a speedy, typically attentive runner. “He was very, very good,” Stuper said. “D,” or “R.D.,” as he was known by his teammates at the time, was the program’s........

© Politico

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