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Trump’s opening volley at DeSantis doesn’t make much sense

President Donald Trump greets Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as he arrives at West Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Sept. 8, 2020 (Evan Vucci/AP)
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Donald Trump has a growing Ron DeSantis problem. And judging by one of his first big volleys in their prospective 2024 matchup, the former president doesn’t have a lot of cogent ideas for how to combat it.

Trump this weekend unrolled an argument against DeSantis: that Florida had been too slow to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic. “There are Republican governors that did not close their states; Florida was closed for a long period of time,” Trump said, building on a comment he made in November.

It’s clearly an effort to muddy the waters, as DeSantis has camped out to Trump’s right by expressing skepticism of coronavirus vaccines (which, of course, were produced on Trump’s watch). It also flies in the face of Trump’s commentary at the time, on how the Florida governor was handling the pandemic.

Trump added in his remarks Saturday that DeSantis’s team was “trying to rewrite history” on the governor’s coronavirus response.

But if there’s one person trying to rewrite history, it’s surely Trump.

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DeSantis was initially and heavily criticized for waiting to issue a stay-at-home order until April 1, 2020. (Incidentally, while explaining that decision, DeSantis cited Trump’s brief shift in tone toward taking the virus more seriously.) A handful of generally smaller and more rural states never put such orders in place, but Florida was among the last of the states that did.

Governors — especially Republican ones — began talking about reopening later that month, and drew up plans to do so. And Florida was among the more ambitious states when it came to reopening — to such an extent that it earned DeSantis plenty of criticism at the time.

Indeed, at one point, it was actually Trump who criticized state leaders for moving too fast. Asked on April 22 about Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) move to reopen small businesses, gyms, salons and restaurants, Trump said he “strongly” disagreed with what Kemp was doing and accused him of violating the federal guidelines.

About a week later, though, Trump appeared to sign off on DeSantis’s more gradual reopening plan. He welcomed the Florida governor to the White House to discuss it on April 28 and the next day remarked that DeSantis had given “a really good presentation of how he’s doing it, what he’s doing, how he’s opening.”

Precisely what period Trump is talking about today isn’t clear. But Florida’s stay-at-home order lapsed in early May, right around when it did in other states. And the state embarked upon a relatively quick reopening schedule that culminated in DeSantis lifting all restrictions on restaurants and businesses in late September. (“The state of Florida is probably the most open big state in the country,” DeSantis boasted at the time.) Florida was also one of the first states to order schools open, and DeSantis’s administration played hardball with school districts that refused to resume five-day, in-person instruction by Aug. 31.

And all the while, Trump praised both Florida’s reopening in general and DeSantis by name:

  • On June 5, Trump praised Florida in the same breath as Georgia while hailing states with the most ambitious reopening timelines. “Look at what’s going on in Florida, it’s incredible. If you look at so many different places that have opened up … the ones that are most energetic about opening, they are doing tremendous business, and this is what these numbers are all about.”
  • In July, Trump applauded Florida’s decision to reopen schools in the fall.
  • In late July, during a covid roundtable in Florida, Trump said DeSantis had done “a fantastic job.”
  • Trump complimented DeSantis’s work on the issue at least three more times in August and September.

But perhaps the coup de grace came in late October 2020. Speaking at a reelection rally in Ocala, Fla., a month after DeSantis ended the all major pandemic restrictions, Trump praised the governor specifically for not closing down.

“We had surges, and they went up and they went down, and now you’re at your lowest numbers,” Trump said. “And you’re open and you didn’t close, and you’re just amazing — right, this guy?

“So we’re joined today by one of the greatest governors in our country — and I know a lot of good ones, and I can tell you, there’s some really bad ones, too — but this is a great one, Gov. Ron DeSantis.”

Now, a little more than two years later, Trump is attacking the governor he once called “great” for not closing — and whose reopening plan he never expressed any disagreement with (unlike Georgia’s) — and is claiming DeSantis was too restrictive.

Not that rhetorical consistency has ever been Trump’s strength. We should probably view this for what it is: an attempt to inject doubt in certain people’s minds. And lockdowns offer a near-perfect opportunity to do so, given how undefined and amorphous the term is and how varied the states’ reopening processes were.

But if their respective covid records are what Trump has to work with — and if his own record is something he views as a political vulnerability — that’s telling.