Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis described former President Donald Trump as having over-promised and under-delivered on Tuesday, vowing in New Hampshire to “break the swamp” in Washington while faulting Trump for failing to deliver on his 2016 campaign promises to “drain” it.
“If I tell you I’m going to do something, I’m not just saying that for an election,” DeSantis said in one of his sharpest attacks on the former president yet.
Trump, meanwhile, mocked the size of DeSantis’ town hall crowds, telling attendees at a luncheon in Concord that “nobody showed up” to the Florida governor’s event a 40-minute drive south in Hollis.
The two top-polling contenders for the GOP’s 2024 nomination circled each other Tuesday in New Hampshire, trading shots as they crisscrossed the state that hosts the first primary – after Iowa’s caucuses – and is a crucial momentum-builder.
Their exchanges offered a preview of the months to come, with the Republican field having taken shape in recent weeks and the party’s first presidential debate less than two months away.
Trump was blunt about why he was targeting DeSantis, rather than other GOP 2024 rivals, such as his former vice president, Mike Pence, or his former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley.
“Somebody said, ‘How come you only attack him?’” Trump told the crowd in Concord. “I said, ‘Cause he’s in second place.’”
“‘Well, why don’t you attack others?’” Trump said, repeating the question he said he was asked. “Because they’re not in second place. But soon, I don’t think he’ll be in second place, so I’ll be attacking somebody else.”
The former president even praised two other GOP contenders, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who he said is “actually a pretty good guy” after Ramaswamy said he would pardon Trump, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who he said “happens to be a very nice guy, actually.”
Harping on early-state polls that show Trump with a lead in the GOP’s 2024 primary, Trump focused his attacks on DeSantis over his response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Florida and his past support for privatizing Social Security and Medicare.
Trump argued that during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis wanted “everything closed” in Florida and gave “very threatening speeches – you know, thinks he’s a tough guy.”
He said DeSantis “loved Fauci,” referring to the government’s former top infectious disease expert, who was a central figure in the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic and recently retired during President Joe Biden’s administration.
Trump’s remarks came shortly after DeSantis had fielded a voter’s question about Trump at a town hall in Hollis.
A voter told DeSantis “most of us in this room voted to drain the swamp twice” and asked why he’s the one to “get it done this time as opposed to the other choice.”
“I remember these rallies in 2016. It was exciting. ‘Drain the swamp.’ I also remember ‘Lock her up, lock her up,’ right? And then two weeks after the election, ‘Ah no, forget about it. Forget I ever said that.’ No, no, no. One thing you’ll get from me, if I tell you I’m going to do something, I’m not just saying that for an election,” DeSantis said.
He said he doesn’t make promises he can’t follow through on, even if they might help him “marginally politically.” DeSantis also said just draining the swamp is not effective enough. Instead, he said he wants to “break” it.
It was a riff on one of Trump’s signature 2016 campaign lines, and a suggestion that the former president had not delivered on his lofty promises to remake Washington.
“The idea of draining the swamp, in some respects, I think it misses it a little bit,” DeSantis said. “We didn’t drain it. It’s worse today than it’s ever been by far. And that’s a sad testament to the state of affairs of our country. But even if you’re successful at draining it, the next guy can just refill it. So, I want to break the swamp. That’s really what we need to do.”
The Florida governor said he would “drop the hammer” on some federal agencies, including the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service, and “end the weaponization of government.”
“All of these agencies are going to be turned inside and out,” DeSantis said.
His promise of a more aggressive approach than Trump’s ignores the potential legal hurdles he could encounter if elected next November. In Florida, more than a dozen legal battles testing the constitutionality of many of the victories DeSantis has touted on the campaign trail are ongoing. Critics say DeSantis has built his governorship around enacting laws that appeal to his conservative base but that, as a Harvard-trained lawyer, he knows are unconstitutional and not likely to take effect.
The Florida governor’s remarks in New Hampshire came the day after he had taken aim at another signature Trump 2016 campaign pledge: DeSantis said that “not nearly enough” of the wall Trump had promised on the United States-Mexico border had been built.
“For us, it’s going to be a national emergency on day one. This is going to be mobilizing all available assets on day one. We have a plan for all the different levers of authority that we have to be able to bring this to bear,” DeSantis said at the Rio Grande River on the U.S. Mexico Border in Maverick County, Texas, on Monday.
In an effort to position himself to Trump’s political right on immigration enforcement, DeSantis also said he would be “more aggressive in terms of our plan than anything he did in empowering local officials to enforce immigration law.”
Trump fired back on the issue later Tuesday in his second New Hampshire stop as he mingled with voters in Manchester at the opening of his campaign headquarters there, saying that DeSantis was promising to carry out policies that Trump had already enacted as president.
“I saw DeSantis yesterday, he got up and said exactly what I was doing,” with his border and immigration policies, Trump said.