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Ron DeSantis Sharpens Attacks on Trump
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Ron DeSantis Sharpens Attacks on Trump

Plus: Republicans split by predictable fault lines in the House debt ceiling fight.

Ron DeSantis speaks during his campaign kickoff event at Eternity Church in Clive, Iowa, on Tuesday. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! Gary Leffler, a Republican activist from Iowa, told the Washington Post this week he was trying to lure the Trump and DeSantis campaigns into competing for his endorsement. “We don’t really look at it as a bidding war as much as my wife and I are praying and want to make sure we would feel comfortable in the direction,” Leffler said. “We’ve been very up front with both campaigns: We’re not doing it for free.”

Leffler later walked back his comments—but if you’ve got anything else you want to get off your chest, Gary, you know where to find us.

Up to Speed

  • With an early-June deadline fast approaching, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden struck a tentative deal over the weekend to suspend the debt ceiling for two years while curtailing some future federal spending. The bill is expected to pass the House Wednesday, even with some Republican fiscal hawks opposing the deal for not cutting enough.
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will announce his presidential campaign Tuesday at an evening event in New Hampshire, Axios first reported and The Dispatch confirmed. Allies of the governor are standing up a new super PAC, Tell It Like It Is, to support the campaign, which plans to focus its attacks on former President Donald Trump.
  • Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson told supporters Tuesday he plans to seek reelection rather than run for the U.S. Senate.  The conservative Club for Growth had courted Davidson, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. The race to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has so far attracted state Sen. Matt Dolan and businessman Bernie Moreno; Secretary of State Frank LaRose has made moves to prepare for a run but has not yet announced.
  • The Texas House voted 121-23 Saturday to impeach state Attorney General Ken Paxton, accusing him of bribery, obstruction of justice, and breach of public trust. A defiant Paxton, who has been suspended pending a Senate trial, accused his impeachers of sabotaging his ongoing legal fights against “Biden’s extremist agenda”; he has retained the support of a number of prominent national Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and fellow Texan Sen. Ted Cruz.

DeSantis Expands Offensive Against Trump

CLIVE, Iowa—Is any Republican going to attack Donald Trump? Ron DeSantis is.

During a news conference in suburban Des Moines Tuesday evening after his first campaign rally as a presidential candidate, DeSantis repeatedly fielded questions about Trump, who has been carpet-bombing his former ally for months. What about Trump’s criticism over DeSantis’ fight with Disney? What about his claim that former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had handled the coronavirus pandemic better than the Florida governor? Did DeSantis hope to win evangelicals away from Trump?

DeSantis didn’t flinch. “I’m going to respond to attacks,” the governor said. “I’m going to counterpunch; I’m going to fight back.” 

Indeed, he did more than fight back—he piled on.

On Cuomo’s supposedly superior pandemic leadership: “First of all, that’s not what he used to say. He used to say how grateful he was. Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship.”

On Trump’s silence so far on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s debt-ceiling deal: “Are you leading from the front, or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take? I led from the front on this. I didn’t need to put my finger in the wind—that’s not how I roll.”

On how he plans to distinguish himself from the former president: “There’s no substitute for victory.”

There was more. DeSantis jabbed at Trump for presiding over a spike in federal spending, which he said he opposed during his three terms in Congress. And he described Trump as soft on illegal immigration—the former president’s signature issue.

Trump is leading the race for the Republican nomination with 53.2 percent to DeSantis’ 22.4 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average. The former president built that lead by hammering DeSantis for months with mostly unanswered attacks while taking little incoming fire himself from other declared GOP contenders, from former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. But DeSantis is running a different campaign. 

In comparison with DeSantis’ official campaign kickoff—a glitchy, widely panned interview on the social media audio platform Twitter Spaces—his first meatspace campaign event went off largely without a hitch. 

For the venue, the DeSantis campaign picked Eternity Church here in Clive, a suburban community just west of Des Moines. It was an obvious choice: Religious conservatives are influential in the caucuses. The governor and first lady Casey DeSantis prayed with 15 local pastors ahead of the rally, the DeSantis campaign let it be known. A standing-room-only crowd of 1,000—requiring two overflow rooms—packed the church to see the new candidate.

DeSantis tried out a new speech, with mixed results—he was noticeably uncomfortable in the beginning, although his delivery improved after a short interlude during which he brought his wife on stage to speak. The audience loved the content, rewarding the governor with several standing ovations and staying until the end of an address that ran more than 45 minutes. 

“I like that he’s against the woke culture,” Rod Wisecup, a 66 year-old retiree, told The Dispatch, explaining why DeSantis is a strong contender for his support in the caucuses. “I think it’s gone way overboard and it’s going to ruin our country if we don’t get it under control.”

DeSantis has another full day of Iowa campaigning today, with stops in Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Pella, and Cedar Rapids. Not to be outdone, Trump announced he would now visit Des Moines Wednesday and added meetings with grassroots supporters and religious leaders to a previously announced trip to the state scheduled for Thursday.

Debt Ceiling Deal On Verge of House Passage

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s bipartisan debt ceiling agreement with President Joe Biden, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, looks poised to hit the House floor for a vote later today, a feat for the speaker in such a closely divided Congress.

Negotiators have agreed to suspend the country’s $31.4 trillion borrowing limit through January 2025 in exchange for discretionary spending caps and a number of other conservative policy concessions. 

McCarthy predicts he has enough support to clear the bill in the House, which would put it on track to reach Biden’s desk ahead of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s estimated June 5 deadline—though some U.S. senators could nuke that timeline with amendment votes once the bill clears the lower chamber.

House Freedom Caucus members railed against the agreement during a Tuesday press conference.

“No one sent us here to borrow an additional $4 trillion to get absolutely nothing in return but at best, if I’m being really generous, a spending freeze for a couple of years,” GOP Rep. Chip Roy, an avowed no-vote, said Tuesday.

McCarthy’s leadership team, meanwhile, is touting conservative conditions Republicans managed to get into the deal: placing limits on defense and nondefense discretionary spending for two years, clawing back billions in unspent pandemic aid and some IRS funding, stricter work requirements for federal food aid programs, and hastening the permitting approval process for a number of energy projects. 

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released new figures Tuesday predicting the bill would slow the growth of the national debt by $1.5 trillion over the next decade.

“This is the most conservative spending package in my service in Congress, and this is my 10th term,” GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, one of McCarthy’s lead negotiators, said during a Sunday press conference.

With Biden blessing the deal, McCarthy can afford to lose some of his caucus on the final vote. “It’s our expectation that House Republicans will keep their promise and deliver at least 150 votes as it relates to an agreement that they themselves negotiated with the White House,” House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Tuesday. “House Democrats will make sure that the country does not default.”

That’s a remarkable shift from where Democrats stood just weeks ago. For months, Biden and his allies stuck to the position that Republicans asking to attach any cuts to the debt ceiling was tantamount to economic terrorism.  That changed after House Republicans passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act. The far more conservative bill stood no chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate but helped tip public opinion in Republicans’ favor, bringing Biden to the negotiating table.

From that vantage point, some fiscal hawks who’ve seen their share of debt ceiling negotiations over the years are urging Republicans to count themselves lucky they got any concessions at all.

“We never actually freeze spending in Washington, D.C.,” said former GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who also previously served as acting chief of staff to Trump and as director of the Office of Management and Budget. “Goodness gracious, when I was in the OMB, I found out we still had money from [Hurricane] Katrina we hadn’t spent yet and that hadn’t been clawed back.”

It’s notable that McCarthy succeeded in striking a deal with support from Biden, a potentially sizable chunk of House Democratic caucus, and what looks to be a large majority of House Republicans—a formidable conservative coalition ranging from firebrand House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio to swing seat freshman Rep. Mike Lawler of New York. And he did it during a divided government.

One question remains: whether Freedom Caucus distaste for the bill will coalesce into a more direct challenge to McCarthy’s authority as speaker. Some hardliners groused Tuesday that McCarthy’s negotiation had violated some of the backroom concessions he granted the rightmost wing of the conference during his January fight for the gavel. 

“Both the left flank and the right flank are ticked off, and that’s how the middle holds,” Republican lobbyist Liam Donovan told The Dispatch.

Eyes on the Trail

  • Knives out? Maybe there’s strength in numbers when you want to go after a guy like Donald Trump. After months of focusing fire on Ron DeSantis alone, Nikki Haley on Tuesday released a statement dinging the “DeSantis-Trump record on increasing debt” over both candidates’ support of a 2018 budget deal that was opposed by many fiscal hawks. (DeSantis, who had long opposed huge spending bills while in Congress, was running for governor by this point and balked at opposing a bill that contained large sums of Florida disaster relief.) And on the campaign trail, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has also begun drawing a more explicit contrast with Trump, telling Iowa Republicans that, while he supports Trump’s America First agenda, “you only go so far when you’re doing it based on vengeance and grievance rather than first principles and moral authority.” 

Notable and Quotable

“Everyone knows if I’m the nominee I will beat Biden, and I will serve two terms, and I will be able to destroy leftism in this country and leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history.”

—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Fox News, Monday, May 29

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.