For about a year, Donald Trump’s confidants, advisers and boosters have worried that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was positioning himself to get to the right of the former president over the issue of Covid vaccines.
DeSantis, who is mulling whether to challenge Trump in the 2024 Republican primary for president, deepened those suspicions Tuesday.
At a roundtable he convened of Covid vaccine skeptics and opponents — including his own surgeon general — he formally called on the state Supreme Court to impanel a grand jury to investigate whether pharmaceutical companies criminally misled Floridians about the side effects of vaccines, a position at odds with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
DeSantis was a major booster of the vaccines last year and once called them lifesaving, but he later turned against them, mirroring a shift in conservative Republican opinion. By January, he refused to say if he even got a booster, and that prompted Trump — whose Operation Warp Speed led to the rapid development of the vaccines — to take a thinly veiled shot at him, albeit not by name, for being “gutless.”
The decision by DeSantis to now investigate the vaccines was widely panned by those in Trump’s orbit.
“Prior to this, his position was identical to Trump’s, and he advocated the efficiency and safety of vaccines. That’s his record,” said Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump and an outspoken critic of DeSantis.
“This is a shot across the bow. We know exactly what Ron is up to,” said another Trump adviser who spoke more bluntly, but on the condition of anonymity to be able to speak freely.
“The fact is, we’ve seen this coming for a year, ever since Ron started to get anti-vax,” the Republican said, explaining the governor's opposition to the vaccine. “Yes, there’s a portion of our base that is anti-vax and some people could walk away from Trump over it. That’s why Ron is doing it. It’s so transparent.”
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump, said in a written statement that that “after China unleashed this deadly virus onto the rest of the world, President Trump’s administration worked tirelessly to secure medical equipment to save the lives of Americans who were infected."
"Operation Warp Speed was a once-in-a-lifetime initiative that gave people the option of utilizing therapeutics if they wished to do so," he added. "He also fought against any attempt to federalize the pandemic response by protecting every state’s right to ultimately decide what is best for their people because of the unique challenges each state faced.”
Those familiar with DeSantis’ thinking downplayed the political ramifications, pointing out that he was one of the first high-profile Republicans to challenge expert opinions and health care professionals when it came to the Covid response, from his decision to reopen the state and schools early to banning vaccine and mask mandates to hiring Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who has been criticized for questioning vaccines in far-right social media channels.
DeSantis was also an early public critic of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, during the pandemic who became anathema to conservatives in 2020, even as Trump resisted pressure to oust him (while still often criticizing him).
“This isn’t about 2024. This is about what DeSantis believes in,” said one Republican who was not authorized to speak publicly on his behalf.
DeSantis’ announcement came just hours after a study found the vaccines have saved 3.2 million American lives. Also Tuesday, a Suffolk University/USA Today national poll of Republicans found that Trump’s standing was cratering in relation to DeSantis, who was preferred over the former president by 56%-33% in a hypothetical primary.
The poll also showed DeSantis ahead of President Joe Biden in a theoretical general election matchup by 47%-43%, but Biden topped Trump 47%-40%.
“With Republicans, what we’ve been seeing is candidates who are strong in a primary but weak in a general or the other way around, but DeSantis is a double-barrel shotgun,” Suffolk pollster David Paleologos told NBC News. “DeSantis’ support spans many columns and crosstabs, and that includes Trump voters and lots of them are anti-vax.”
In Florida, home to both DeSantis and Trump, a poll released last week from the Republican firm Ragnar Research Partners showed the governor was more popular with Republicans in the Sunshine State, including among those who considered themselves Trump voters. Ragnar’s pollster, Chris Perkins, said DeSantis pulls from a broad cross-section of Republican voters.
Perkins said the portion of anti-vaccine Republicans is very small, but "it’s very vocal.”
And Trump fears losing them, advisers say.
“He knows there’s a problem with the base and vaccines,” another Trump adviser said. “But if this is a fight DeSantis wants to pick, bring it.”
A year ago, at a Dallas event with former Fox personality Bill O’Reilly, Trump was booed for saying he got a booster shot, which advisers said surprised him.
“He waved it off, but the boos sent a message,” said one adviser who discussed the matter with him and shared the anecdote on the condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations. “We told him some people hate it, but he said he didn’t care. He’s proud of Warp Speed. He’s stubborn. But he’s also watching DeSantis and it pisses him off.”
Indeed, DeSantis’ refusal to say if he got boosted last winter came less than a month after Trump was booed. By that point, the former president was already annoyed with DeSantis, who won his 2018 primary for governor on the strength of Trump’s endorsement but then refused to pledge to not run against Trump in 2024, according to those who have spoken to Trump.
“Gov. DeSantis owes his entire political career to Trump and he’s going to look like an ingrate if he runs against him,” said Laura Loomer, a conservative activist and former Republican congressional candidate in Florida. “So the only option for DeSantis to pose a challenge to Trump is to attack him on the vaccine. It’s disingenuous.”