TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Donald Trump’s allies are stepping up their battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, formally accusing him of violating state ethics and election laws with his “shadow presidential campaign.”
Make America Great Again Inc. is filing a 15-page complaint Wednesday with the Florida Commission on Ethics, a draft of which was obtained exclusively by NBC News.
It asks the commission to probe whether pro-DeSantis super PACs, his "personally lucrative book tour" and a continued wave of state-level campaign contributions, among other things, "are unlawful because they serve his personal political objectives, are in furtherance of his personal financial gain at the expense of Florida taxpayers, and are intended to influence his official decision to resign from office."
Since Trump announced in November that he is again running for president, he has grown more publicly hostile toward DeSantis, a former political protégé now expected to be his chief rival in the Republican primaries. That includes branding DeSantis with Trump's trademark nicknames and trying to frame him as a political moderate out of step with the GOP base.
But the complaint is the first time Trump’s supporters have elevated the feud from campaign trail rhetoric to a formal legal fight.
"Adding this to the list of frivolous and politically motivated attacks — it's inappropriate to use state ethics for partisan purposes," said Taryn Fenske, DeSantis' communications director.
Trump’s allies face a tall order in getting the commission to investigate DeSantis, considering he appointed five of the nine members.
In theory, if he did face penalties, they could include fines, public censure, ballot disqualification, removal from office or impeachment.
The draft complaint details steps DeSantis has taken in recent months that appear to orchestrate a coming presidential bid.
DeSantis is widely expected to run for president but has not yet formally announced. The complaint alleges, however, that he has already checked all the boxes for someone considering a run for the White House, including making stops in early primary states; writing a book (his is titled “The Courage to Be Free”); raising tens of millions of dollars to go into a state-level committee that could be transferred to a federal super PAC; and watching a constellation of supporter-led super PACs and an outside nonprofit group pop up, some with the stated intention of getting DeSantis to run for president.
The pro-Trump super PAC says those steps, when taken together, violate a handful of Florida laws about officeholders’ accepting illegal gifts.
“This letter provides ample evidence to support a finding of probable cause by the Florida Commission on Ethics that Governor DeSantis, in concert with certain associated political committees, political consultants and a 501(c)(4) organization, has solicited and received millions of dollars' worth of illegal gifts in violation of Florida State ethics laws and the Florida Constitution,” the draft complaint reads.
It is addressed to chairman of the Ethics Commission, Glenton Gilzean, whom DeSantis appointed.
DeSantis has repeatedly brushed off questions about whether he is considering a bid for president, and his allies have insisted that he is focused on governing Florida rather than planning a presidential campaign.
Trump’s team bases its complaint, in part, on Florida’s resign-to-run law, which requires politicians running for a new office to resign if the terms of the two offices will overlap. DeSantis was re-elected last year to another four-year term by a near-20-point margin.
Florida legislators have changed the law in the past, most notably when former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist was on the short list to be John McCain’s presidential running mate in 2008. The law was changed back in 2018, but Republican legislative leaders have openly discussed changing it again during the current legislative session for a potential DeSantis presidential bid.
“If an individual who is a Florida governor is running for president, I think he should be allowed to do it,” state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a Republican, told reporters in November.
Trump’s allies argue that because the law has not yet been changed, any gifts or money accepted to influence his decision to resign from office to run for president are in violation of state law that prevents officeholders from accepting gifts designed to sway an “official action.”
The ethics complaint specifically notes a new Virginia-based super PAC called Run, Ron, Run!, which was created by Ken Cuccinelli, a former top official in the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security.
“America’s future is Ron DeSantis,” Cuccinelli said in a promotional video announcing the new committee last week.
The creation of committees like Cuccinelli's, and other super PACs considered less viable vehicles for pro-DeSantis donors, represents illegal attempts to persuade DeSantis to resign from office, the MAGA Inc. draft complaint argues.
“Run, Ron, Run!, which was formed on March 8, 2023, exists for the sole intent of enticing Governor DeSantis to run for president and exercise his official judgment to submit an irrevocable resignation pursuant to Florida's resign to run law,” it says.
DeSantis has also raised more than $10 million for a state-level political committee called Friends of Ron DeSantis since the beginning of the year. The committee has long been his main fundraising vehicle, and the money can be transferred to a federal super PAC, but Trump’s team says that because DeSantis faced term limits, the committee’s continued spending represents attempts to boost his presidential aspirations.
“While only publicly teasing his private decision to run for president," the draft complaint reads, "Friends of Ron DeSantis, Governor DeSantis’ Florida political committee, has made Governor DeSantis’s intentions clear with a new advertising campaign ostensibly promoting his book, stating, 'that’s just the price you have to pay to be able to save this country.'"