TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis has followed President Donald Trump’s lead for months while he waged a local battle against the coronavirus in Florida. That loyalty was rewarded with scorn from the White House this week as scrutiny on the state’s handling of Covid-19 ratchets up in the final months of the presidential campaign.
Twice in two days, Trump and his aides have put the squeeze on DeSantis, a fellow Republican.
“Florida is in a little tough, or a big tough, position,” Trump told reporters this week.
Now, DeSantis, a Trump ally, is painted into a corner: He needs to deliver the must-win battleground for the president — something the state’s rising cases and death rate are chipping away at — while staying in Trump’s good graces as his once-sky-high approval ratings sink. Without Trump’s endorsement in the 2018 GOP primary, DeSantis almost certainly wouldn’t have been elected.
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway followed the president’s blunt assessment with her own criticism on Wednesday of states that have become hotspots, saying some businesses — specifically nightlife — opened too soon and contributed to the surge in infections.
“They opened up some of the industries too quickly, like bars,” she said to reporters. “The governors wanted complete latitude over when they would open their states, they pushed back heavily … Republicans and Democrats, when it was falsely rumored that the president was going to be in charge of opening the states.”
Conway didn’t call out Florida directly, but her comments clearly included the state, which reopened bars to partial capacity in early June and DeSantis soon derided as fostering “dance party USA.” On Tuesday, Florida reported 9,752 new cases, and a 10.5 percent positivity rate.
DeSantis, now and from the beginning, has cast the state’s response in the most positive light, even as cases increase, the positivity rate hits double digits, and health care providers begin to feel the strain. The daily death toll has also gone up. His administration has also lined up with Trump’s call to fully open public schools.
As Trump used the White House briefing room to turn the nation’s focus on Florida on Monday, DeSantis was in Tallahassee talking about hospitals. He held an upbeat briefing with medical officials and in a tweet highlighted that his administration had delivered 50,000 vials of remdesivir, a promising coronavirus treatment, to state hospitals.
DeSantis spokesperson Meredith Beatrice deflected critiques lobbed at the governor on Wednesday, saying he’s been “driven by data and science” and took early action.
“Florida remains poised to make a strong recovery and will continue to collaborate with local leaders on how to re-open in a targeted, measured way,” she said in an email. “The Governor’s actions to protect our most vulnerable in long-term care facilities pre-dated any federal guidance to states, and his actions have been acknowledged as having saved lives.”
As the coronavirus outbreak spread this spring and summer, Trump refused to order states to take action. DeSantis has mirrored the president’s moves and has said openly that some of his decisions were based on clear White House signals, such as dismissing the idea of mandating masks — an idea he said was unenforceable.
As spring break vacationers descended on Florida and the virus spread, DeSantis refused to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, breaking with dozens of other governors.
He relented on April 1 after Trump himself thawed to state shutdown orders, giving DeSantis political cover to move forward.
“It is a very serious situation,” DeSantis said at the time. “When you see the president up there and his demeanor the last couple of days, that’s not necessarily how he always is.”
Conway on Wednesday noted that Trump had criticized Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, in late April for opening some businesses too quickly. Just the previous week, the president had urged states to “liberate” their people from lockdowns. But, Conway said, Trump’s critique of Kemp showed he hadn’t aggressively pushed to reopen the economy.
Trump “pushed back on the governor of Georgia, a Republican, who he, frankly, helped get elected. He pushed back on him early,” Conway said. “He said publicly … ‘I think it’s a little too early. Why don’t we wait just a little bit longer?’”
The anecdote was an outlier, the president’s lone early nod toward restraint amid his otherwise consistent message that the economy needed to reopen.
When DeSantis convened a task force of business leaders in late April to look at reopening stores, parks, gyms and restaurants, it was in line with public messaging from Trump, whose focus at the time was on salvaging the nation’s economy.
“I feel more and more confident that our economy is in the early stages of coming back very strong,” Trump tweeted June 3. “Not everyone agrees with me, but I have little doubt. Watch for September, October, November. Next year will be one of the best ever, and look at the Stock Market NOW!”
That day, Florida entered phase two of its reopening, which allowed gyms to open, expanded restaurant capacity and let bars serve a limited number of customers.
Weeks later, Trump’s focus remained on reopening the country. He held a “reopening of America’s Small Businesses” roundtable on June 18 and made clear where his focus was.
“Under my administration’s strategy to vanquish the virus and restart our economy, small businesses across the national are now safely reopening — all over the nation, they’re reopening at levels like nobody’s seen before,” Trump said at the time.
DeSantis’ administration also followed Trump on reopening schools.
On July 7, when Trump tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN FALL,” Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an order requiring schools to reopen at least five days a week starting in August.
The same day the order was made public, Trump applauded DeSantis.
“Gov. DeSantis of Florida is doing a terrific job. He just announced that the schools will be open in the fall,” the president said at a White House press conference. “We are very much going to put pressure on governors and everyone else to open the schools.”