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Trump's calls for GOP 'unity' face two big hurdles: Ron DeSantis and Trump

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly endorsed Trump when he dropped his presidential bid — but he also took something of a swipe at the former president a day later.
Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis
Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.Getty Images

As he watched the Iowa caucus results rolling in from a holding room on the night of Jan. 15, former President Donald Trump decided to scrap four pages of prepared remarks about what would turn out to be a resounding victory — in which he outdistanced his nearest competitor by more than 30 percentage points.

With sons Don Jr. and Eric on hand, as well as his senior staff, Trump went over the thrust of what he wanted to say and jotted down a few notes — “with the theme of unity,” according to a person who was there and described the scene to NBC News.

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When he took the stage that night at his victory party, Trump didn’t mention the rivals looking to deal him an upset a week later in New Hampshire at all. Instead, he focused on contrasting his agenda with the record of President Joe Biden, his once and likely future general election opponent. He used the word “we” in nearly every sentence, including the one that embodied his message to Republicans: “We’re going to come together.”

The one Republican who didn’t quite get it: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

There are sound reasons for Trump to be concerned about consolidating the party.

He is headed to his third straight Republican presidential nomination, but he isn't winning the kind of overwhelming primary majorities common to actual incumbents. If Nikki Haley fulfills her promise to keep campaigning for at least a month, she will expose whatever reluctance about Trump remains within the GOP. It’s also costly for Trump to keep fighting in the primary. And he is trying to nail down the nomination before his criminal trials start in earnest — political wildcards without precedent in American history.

Trump’s ability to try to unify the party — and the extent that is possible — will likely be put to the greatest test with DeSantis, his onetime ally who became his top nemesis.

When DeSantis dropped his presidential bid last week, he immediately endorsed Trump. The former president greeted him with kind words, seemingly a signal that despite the personal nature of their feud, he might be willing to forgive and forget in the spirit of unity.

“I just want to thank Ron and congratulate him on doing a very good job,” Trump said during a Sunday night rally in New Hampshire. “He was very gracious, and he endorsed me. I appreciate that, and I also look forward to working with Ron.”

DeSantis has an open invitation to appear with Trump on the campaign trail when he’s ready to do so, according to a Trump campaign official.

The Trump campaign reached out to DeSantis world through "high-level channels," on Sunday with an invitation to appear at a campaign stop. Another Trump adviser confirmed the outreach and said they never heard back.

“I get it, at that point it was still fresh,” the adviser said. “We never heard back from them.”

“I think you’ll continue to see President Trump and his team be gracious towards DeSantis because of his endorsement but wouldn’t expect that their relationship will ever be what it was before Ron decided to run against him,” a person close to Trump added.

Republicans can be forgiven if they look at Trump’s unity message with a skeptical eye. Not only did he refuse to pledge support to the GOP nominee if it’s not him — effectively threatening to kneecap the party if he doesn’t win — but Trump has trouble sticking with his own message when he gets mad.

On Tuesday night, as Haley promised to fight on after losing in New Hampshire, Trump ranted at her on social media, calling her “delusional.” That was a 180-degree turn in his temperament from when he watched Iowa votes counted just eight days earlier. When it was Trump’s turn to speak Tuesday night, he focused on airing his grievances with Haley.

Even the attempts to reconcile with DeSantis after a brutal GOP primary contest did not last long.

On Monday night, DeSantis posted on the social media site X that he would likely veto legislation in Florida that would set aside $5 million in taxpayer dollars for politicians who live in Florida and are "subject to political discrimination to pay legal fees." State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis pushed the idea; he did not endorse Trump until DeSantis was out of the primary but has spoken highly of him.

The move angered the Trump campaign, which days earlier had been trying to come to a compromise with DeSantis.

"Big Ron couldn’t keep unity for 1 full day. Once a Meatball, always a Meatball," far-right online activist and Trump supporter Jack Posobiec said, referring to a nickname the former president once floated for DeSantis.

The Trump campaign never requested the bill, and in fact, his top campaign advisers tried to send out signals that it’s not something they wanted filed, according to a second Trump adviser. They opposed the idea being formalized in legislation because it would focus the conversation on Trump’s legal woes rather than any campaign message they were trying to build headed into the general election.

“We told them ... that we did not think this was good public policy or good legislation and thought it was bad politics,” the Trump adviser said. “We are now having a conversation about legal bills and not the future.”

The adviser noted that Patronis, who has been a statewide elected Republican in Florida, “did not even endorse until after Iowa.”

Patronis’ office also said the idea was his alone and not written in "coordination with other campaigns."

He said he will pursue the idea in the future, but this "the current environment just isn't right for this year," said a spokesman.

In other words, the bill wasn't going anywhere, so DeSantis didn't really need to weigh in. It was simply an extra jab at the Trump.

DeSantis press secretary Jeremy Redfern said that even through the bill does not mention Trump by name, under current circumstances it would only apply to him.

"It would’ve been a Trump legal fund paid by the taxpayers," he said.

A longtime DeSantis supporter said that the governor has now publicly backed Trump's presidential bid, but that does not mean he will do his bidding.

"He endorsed trump and supports him for president, but not going to be his lackey like some of these republican legislators desperate for attention," the person said in a text message.

On Tuesday night, Trump told NBC News that he “didn’t ask” DeSantis to leave the race.

DeSantis veto threat is likely to complicate any path forward toward unity for both DeSantis and his biggest supporters who might now want to get back in Trump’s good graces.

Eight months ago, DeSantis-backer Steve Cortes — who worked on the super PAC Never Back Down — said he saw DeSantis as the “next, natural phase” of Trump’s political movement, and while he was taking “a personal risk” urging the Florida governor to jump into the race, he was now “advocating for the underdog, the political renegade, the outsider.”

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Cortes said at the time. “Biden vs. Trump, no one likes it.”

Weeks later, Cortes asked on X, “A very serious question: Who would work for Trump?”

But now Cortes has returned with a different sentiment, pronouncing Trump “the indisputable warrior leader” of the Republican Party and offering a mea culpa as polls showed DeSantis on track for single digits in New Hampshire.

“Those of us who backed Ron DeSantis — or the other Republican candidates — should read the room,” Cortes wrote in an op-ed that arrived as part of a wave of obituaries by DeSantis’ supporters coming to terms with the governors crumbling fortunes. “Trump winnowed the field effortlessly and then crushed the remaining three candidates in Iowa. He leads in the polls everywhere else. It is time to coalesce and unite behind the clear preference of the GOP grassroots.”

The question is whether Trump and his allies will welcome back into the fold the defectors now angling for a comeback.

On Truth Social, Trump’s longtime political adviser Dan Scavino reposted Cortes’ latest pitch with screenshots of his public defection to DeSantis last year.

Top Trump adviser Susie Wiles who previously worked for DeSantis and now has a well-known rivalry with the Florida governor, wrote “bye, bye” on X as the DeSantis campaign began to unravel. 

"A lot of these pundits want to live to see another day,” said Alex Bruesewitz, a GOP consultant and CEO of X Strategies, a Trump-aligned political firm. “Will they have the same standing with our movement that they did at the beginning of the primary? I’m not sure. But the days of me attacking these people are over because the primary is over.”

At an event to campaign for his father in New Hampshire on Monday, Trump's son Don Jr. expressed hope that DeSantis and the former president would soon be able to “move on” together in response to a question from NBC News.

He mentioned being able to bury hatchets from the 2016 primary with Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, noting that he and Lee nearly came to blows on the floor of the Republican convention that year and are now good friends.

“And I am able to sort of compartmentalize the realities of a primary, right?” he said. “It’s the game. It’s unfortunate to call it that, I’d love it to not be a game, but that’s what it is.”

At a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday, flanked by former rivals, Trump made party unity a theme of his pitch, even extending an olive branch to DeSantis and saying it was time to retire the unflattering nicknames.

It is a coalescence that could prove existential for Trump as he begins to pivot toward the general election, where surveys show that a majority of voters hold him in a strong negative light.

But while DeSantis endorsed Trump when he exited the race, he hasn’t retracted the attacks, on Tuesday telling conservative radio host Steve Deace he blamed “checked out” GOP voters for the former president’s success.

Asked whether he intends to run again in 2028, DeSantis told Deace, “We’ll see if we have a country left by 2028.”

And while Trump has won both Iowa and New Hampshire and has commanding leads in most primary states, his vote share has not been overwhelming. He received just over 50% in Iowa’s four-way caucus that still included DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, and 54% in a two person race in New Hampshire against Haley — meaning there is a sizable bloc of primary voters who have still not yet decided to back Trump.

“I just think he is going to be spending too much time protecting himself, arguing, fighting — there’s so many problems in the country and people are just brushing them behind,” said Scott Brock, a 61-year-old New Hampshire resident who has supported Trump in the past but voted for Haley in 2024.

Some Trump skeptics in the party point to his arguing without any evidence that the 2020 election was stolen.

“I voted for him twice,” said Steve Hansen, a New Hampshire resident. “But after all the stuff that has gone on … I just could not vote for him.

When asked if that comment was made with 2020 in mind, Hansen said “Yes. Yeah, that’s a fair statement.”

CORRECTION (Jan. 24, 2024, 3:15 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a GOP consultant and the CEO of X Strategies. He is Alex Bruesewitz, not Brusewitz.