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Porn stars and grooming allegations: How the Trump-DeSantis cold war turned hot

Donald Trump's allies have been going after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for how he has responded to the possibility the former president might get indicted.
Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump.
Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump.NBC News; Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The political world waited over the weekend for Ron DeSantis to weigh in on the possible indictment of Donald Trump. And then waited. And waited some more.

In the meantime, Trump world social media influencers and acolytes raked DeSantis over virtual coals, pointing to his silence as complicity in — or at least indifference to — New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg's pursuit of Trump, the GOP's top leader.

Behind the scenes, Trump aides fanned the flames, targeted the Florida governor in news releases and cheered as the Trump world influencers slammed him on Twitter and Truth Social.

When DeSantis finally spoke Monday at a news conference in Tallahassee, Florida, he took shots at Bragg — and at Trump.

"Circus" and "Soros," DeSantis said of the grand jury probe and of George Soros, the billionaire liberal donor. "Hush money" and "porn star," he added, repeating the allegation against Trump.

"I don't know what's going to happen, but I do know this: The Manhattan district attorney is a Soros-funded prosecutor," he said, accusing Bragg of weaponizing his office to go after Trump while overlooking other crimes. (Soros, through the Color of Change PAC, supported Bragg’s election campaign.)

But DeSantis added: "I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just, I can’t speak to that."

That's when all hell broke loose in the 2024 GOP presidential nomination fight, signaling the start of the political arms race Trump has been trying to ignite since DeSantis emerged as his chief rival last year.

Trump took to Truth Social to say it would be unfair if DeSantis were attacked for grooming young girls or being gay. Trump's post didn't leave much to the imagination: It included a picture of a man, allegedly a younger DeSantis, standing with a group of young women, one of whom is holding a bottle.

"Ron DeSanctimonious will probably find out about FALSE ACCUSATIONS & FAKE STORIES sometime in the future, as he gets older, wiser and better known, when he's unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman, even classmates that are 'underage' (or possibly a man!)," Trump wrote. "I'm sure he will want to fight these misfits just like I do!"

The picture is from a 2021 blog post on a site called The Hill Reporter, which purportedly showed a picture of DeSantis with several young women during his brief time as a high school teacher more than 20 years ago. NBC News hasn't confirmed the authenticity of the picture. 

The outbreak of open political warfare between the two men will have far-reaching consequences for Trump, who leads in most national polls, and DeSantis, who has distinguished himself ahead of the rest of the GOP field without having announced a bid. But the two sides disagree over how exactly the race has been disrupted.

Trump allies believe DeSantis' early silence — and his decision to attack Trump directly over allegations of an affair with the adult film star Stormy Daniels — show he's not ready for prime time.

"He just doesn't have it right now, and this weekend showed it," said Steve Bannon, the host of the "Bannon's War Room" podcast and a former top adviser to Trump. The remark about Daniels, who Trump denies slept with him, was "a cheap shot from the cheap seats," he said.

DeSantis' news conference was "a disaster," and 10% of Trump's MAGA voters would never vote for DeSantis now, Bannon said.

"Without 100% of MAGA, you can't win — ask [Virginia Gov. Glenn] Youngkin," he added.

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-ranking House Republican, predicted that DeSantis would see "slippage" in his poll numbers after the remarks.

"He's already seen slippage the past couple of weeks," said Stefanik, an early Trump backer. "And I think you're going to see President Trump continue to solidify his position" in the Republican contest.

But DeSantis backers saw the significance of the back-and-forth in a different light.

"It's already a two-horse race," said Dan Eberhart, a longtime DeSantis donor who is backing him in the primaries. "The substance of the attacks aside, the fact that Trump is going after DeSantis — and no one else — betrays who he's most worried about."

While Eberhart said other Republicans waiting on the sidelines may have "missed their window" to emerge as contenders for the nomination, he also said the lesson of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's absorbing attacks from President Barack Obama that summer shouldn't be lost on DeSantis, who had largely avoided direct confrontation of Trump until Monday.

"DeSantis shouldn't ignore him for too much longer," Eberhart said.

Some DeSantis supporters fear he could be weighed down by Trump attacks before he announces he’s running, which he isn’t expected to do for at least another couple of months.

Former Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., who has encouraged DeSantis to run for president, said the legal ramifications Trump faces not just in New York but also in Georgia and in other ongoing probes are “still a big unknown.” He didn't see an issue with how DeSantis spoke about the matter Monday.

"You can simultaneously criticize what these political prosecutions are doing and how it undermines the rule of law, how we put forth the double standard of justice ... and still look for a new leadership that can kind of do the things we need to do to truly drain the swamp and truly get this government back on the side of the American people," he said. "It’s not an either/or."

"We do need to move ahead and move into the future," he added.

Spokespeople for Trump and DeSantis did not respond to calls seeking comment Monday.

Trump, who first labeled DeSantis “Ron DeSanctimonious” days before the midterm election, has attacked him repeatedly in recent months, seeking to egg on a battle. Last month, Trump called attention to the photo appearing to show DeSantis with young women. This month, the main pro-Trump super PAC filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics accusing DeSantis of breaking the law via his "shadow presidential campaign."

In both cases, DeSantis has kept his response more muted. After Trump shared the photo, DeSantis told reporters he doesn't spend time "trying to smear other Republicans." In response to the complaint, Taryn Fenske, his communications director, described it as a "frivolous and politically motivated" attack.

Many elected Republican leaders have rallied to Trump's defense since he announced Saturday, without evidence, that he expects to be indicted Tuesday. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has clashed with Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection and is looking at a presidential bid, joined that set over the weekend.

A brawl between the twin titans could open up a lane for an alternative option — at least, that's what the rest of the pack is counting on.

But a fight getting so ugly so early could drag others into the mud.

"No one is voting for 11 months," said an adviser to another potential contender. "If they’re going to ratchet the rhetoric to this spot now, GOP voters are not going to like where this ends up in February 2024."