Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from “Swamp Monsters: Trump vs. DeSantis―the Greatest Show on Earth (or at Least in Florida),” a forthcoming book by NBC News senior national politics reporter Matt Dixon. The book, which will be published by Little, Brown and Company on Jan. 9, tells the wild inside story of how former President Donald Trump made a star of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and then set out to destroy him, showing how their struggle for supremacy has turned Florida into the crucible of the new GOP.
Trump wanted to hammer DeSantis, even as staff and top advisers told him it was a bad idea, especially in Florida. The planning of the [November 2022] event itself had already stoked Trump-DeSantis intrigue because the governor was not invited, a perceived snub that spun off its own version of rivalry stories, especially because DeSantis had decided to hold his own set of competing rallies on the same day. The Trump camp did not technically say DeSantis could not come, but they hadn’t invited him, either. Alex Latcham, who served as White House deputy political director during Trump’s time in office and who currently works for his campaign, called Helen Aguirre Ferré, who was by then executive director of the Florida GOP, to invite all statewide elected officials to the event.
“He did not say Marco; he did not say Rick; he did not say Ron. He said, ‘Every statewide elected official,’” recalled a Trump adviser familiar with the planning. “I mean, we did not issue him a personal invitation like we did with Rick and Marco, but he was not not invited.”
As Trump’s speaking slot approached, his advisers urged him not to take the stage and hit DeSantis for a second night in a row; some of Florida’s biggest-name Republicans were in attendance and set to speak, and it would have put them in an awkward position. If they took the stage against the backdrop of what felt like an anti-DeSantis rally, it would have made things much more difficult between them and their home-state governor, who at that point was well known for having a vindictive streak. This group included Joe Gruters, state senator and chairman of the statewide Republican Party — who had picked Trump’s rally over those held by DeSantis — and Rick Scott, who had also long favored Trump over DeSantis.
Gruters and DeSantis have a notoriously icy relationship, and the senator has long been a huge Trump ally. As chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, Gruters gave Trump two “statesman of the year” awards and cochaired Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign. Gruters was such a backer of Trump that, in 2015, he’d swallowed his pride to defend Trump in television interviews in the wake of his controversial comments about Arizona senator John McCain. (“He’s not a war hero,” Trump had said, to boos from the audience. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”)
Gruters had not wanted to defend the comment because he considered it disrespectful to veterans. Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, was unhappy with the decision and asked Joe a simple question: “Are you on the team or not?”
Gruters did the interview.
Gruters’s allegiance to Trump over DeSantis is well known, but Trump’s staff thought picking a fight with DeSantis onstage would overshadow the others at the event, including Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. They worried that if the president continued picking fights, they, too, would be pulled into the battle.
The advisers, though, had not yet convinced Trump of this. They tried negotiating with him and asked what they could do, and finally Trump said, “Find me someone with the balls to convince me not to do it.”
They turned to Roger Stone, the veteran political dirty trickster and longtime close adviser to Trump, who was in attendance at the event.
“He sought a lot of counsel about whether or not to attack Ron that night, and for a while it felt like it was a fifty-fifty proposition,” said a Trump adviser. “We sent some folks out to find Roger, and they did. What he told President Trump was that ‘now is not the time,’ and he listened.”
The idea of Stone talking any politician, much less Trump, out of a political knife fight might seem surprising considering that he is among history’s most pugilistic political advisers—and consider- ing his infamous hatred of DeSantis. But on that night, Stone repre- sented the voice of reason.
“At the end of the day, [Stone] loves President Trump more than he hates Ron DeSantis,” the adviser said.
'Kayne just said he likes Hitler'
Stone’s role as the voice of reason in Trump’s ear would not last. I had a chance to see his calming influence evaporate firsthand while I was sitting in a corner of the bustling Caffe Europa in downtown Fort Lauderdale. As I walked in, Stone was sitting by himself, scroll- ing through his phone. He was dressed in a perfectly tailored suit adorned with a matching pocket square. He was overdressed for the venue, but I would expect nothing less.
I had flown down from Tallahassee to meet with the veteran of many political wars just after the 2022 midterms, which DeSantis won in dominating fashion — fueling the narrative that the Republican Party had moved on from Trump, someone for whom Stone had served as a close adviser. The two had a longtime association, one that made headlines in late 2020 when Trump issued a presidential pardon on Stone’s behalf. Stone had been sentenced to forty months in prison for lying to Congress and threatening a witness during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Stone called the charges “bullshit” and insisted that the whole thing was a Democrat-orchestrated setup.)
Stone had long been an anti-DeSantis voice in the party, even before DeSantis’s rivalry with Trump had bubbled to the surface. During the 2018 gubernatorial primary, Stone’s self-described protégé, Everett Wilkinson, a conservative activist, ran a dark-money group that spent more than $700,000 on ads hammering DeSan- tis over his association with Kent Stermon, the defense contractor whose company had lobbied Congress and was among DeSantis’s biggest donors — and whose condo DeSantis was renting.
The Stone-connected attack ads called DeSantis a “swamp creature” and tried to paint him as a political insider, a label contrary to the narrative he ran on. It’s unclear who precisely funded the ads, but one of Stone’s biggest clients is U.S. Sugar, a political powerhouse that has long feuded with DeSantis and whose positions have long been backed by Wilkinson. DeSantis’s campaign also blamed the sugar industry for the ads.
Stone continued to take shots at DeSantis long after the 2018 race ended. In October of 2022, he piled on to Trump World’s growing narrative about DeSantis, saying that rushing into a challenge of Trump in 2024 “would be the most stunning act of ingratitude and treachery in the history of American politics.”
Through the years, Stone remained a close Trump adviser. Besides talking Trump out of attacking DeSantis at the Miami rally, he was also among the people Trump called after news broke that he had dined with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist and Holocaust denier and longtime friend of Kanye West. At the dinner, things got heated after Ye said he was considering running for president and that Trump should be his running mate, something that angered the former president, NBC News reported at the time.
Trump said after the dinner that he did not know who Fuentes was. The damage, however, had been done, and waves of Republicans denounced Fuentes and the dinner, which took place just days ahead of Thanksgiving in 2022.
“He called me after the Kanye thing, and I asked him, ‘Why did you meet with this guy?’” Stone recalled. “Trump said, ‘He is very popular with the Blacks. When he supported me, he helped me a lot with the Blacks.’”
“Did you know he is talking about running for president?” Stone asked on the call.
“I didn’t know that,” Trump responded.
Trump told Stone that Ye had never been to Mar-a-Lago, and when they’d finally arranged to meet, Ye had shown up with Fuentes and asked if he could join.
“What am I going to say — no?” Trump said to Stone.
Stone has long been an unquestioned Trump foot soldier and would do anything to help him, but there also exists a distinct strand of DeSantis hatred that is a part of his DNA and has nothing to do with his advisee.
Over pizza and chicken Parmesan at the downtown Fort Lauderdale eatery, Stone told me that he had already been thinking about how to best frame messaging against DeSantis if he ran for president — a venture the governor has since officially announced.
“Ron, why do you want to shift billions of dollars to Ukraine when we are not sealing our own southern border?” said Stone, at that point growing animated and flashing his well-known underbite as he previewed potential attack lines against DeSantis.
Ukraine had become a foreign policy litmus test for America First Trump supporters, who opposed the Biden administration’s sending billions of dollars to the war-torn nation. DeSantis had condemned the invasion but at that point had only spoken about it a handful of times, blaming Putin’s aggression on Biden’s “weakness.” Nonetheless, Stone thought using the issue was the approach Trump should take as the battle for the heart of the Republican base started to take shape.
“Why are you trying to get us into World War III?” Stone asked, continuing his pseudorehearsal. “You are with all these guys who want to ship billions to Ukraine. We have hungry and homeless vet- erans on the street.”
It was a snapshot of what the next logical progression would be in the fight for the heart of the Republican Party. In the aftermath of the 2022 midterms, the fast-approaching 2024 Republican primary was largely seen as a two-person race, and for good reason: Trump remained a commanding presence in the party and still had a stranglehold on a large percentage of the Republican base, some of whom, it seems, would not abandon Trump under any circumstances.
The same day, as I was dining with Stone in the Fort Lauderdale Italian joint, Ye went on InfoWars, a live-streamed show hosted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who had to file for bankruptcy after a court ordered him to pay $1.5 billion in damages to families after he claimed that the Sandy Hook shooting was a setup. During the broadcast, which came just after his dinner with Trump and Nick Fuentes, Ye made positive comments about Hitler that went viral.
“The Jewish media has made us feel like the Nazis and Hitler have never offered anything of value to the world,” Ye said. “I see good things about Hitler also.”
Moments after West made the statement, Stone went quiet as we were finishing up our roughly hour-long interview. He stared at his phone, as if in disbelief.
“Kayne just said he likes Hitler,” Stone said. “That’s no good.”
The longtime Trump confidant stood up and said, “I’ve got to deal with this,” then quickly left the restaurant.