On its face, there wasn’t anything unusual about the email that landed last week in the press office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Background interview request from the Washington Post,” read the subject line that summarized the industry-standard process whereby information is shared with reporters under pre-negotiated terms, usually anonymity. When sanctioned by a politician or their team, it is called “going on background” to shape and broaden a story with additional facts and contexts but without direct attribution. When not sanctioned, well, then that is just called leaking.
Either way, Jeremy Redfern wasn’t interested. The DeSantis spokesman wrote back one word: “No.”
A screenshot of the exchange went viral with the consensus in more conservative corners of Twitter being that a liberal rag, albeit the beltway paper of record, had just been owned. The score in their minds? DeSantis: 1, WaPo: 0.
The little episode does underscore a larger, still emerging theme of the expected DeSantis presidential campaign. It isn’t just that the team that didn’t leak in Florida wouldn’t leak in the White House. The implication is that DeSantis would not obsess over what is written about him in news outlets most of his constituents don’t read, because such an obsession is counterproductive to conservative goals. In this way, DeSantis may prove to be the anti-chaos candidate.
DeSantis has hinted at all of this during a recent book tour, a closely watched exercise that seems to be a dress rehearsal for a White House run. “There’s no drama in our administration,” he said on stage in Iowa next to Gov. Kim Reynolds. “There’s no palace intrigue.” The juxtaposition with the frontrunner in the GOP primary, former President Donald Trump, was implicit and obvious.
“We made very clear to the people working in the administration, you’re not going to be leaking,” DeSantis said, recalling how he told his staff early on that if they had “any other agenda” than “doing business of the people of Florida” then they might as well “pack your bags right now.”
With a unified team onboard with that mission, DeSantis continued, “We roll out, and we execute, and we do things, and we get things done. And in the process, we beat the left day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.”
Republicans have made the media their foil for decades now. Newt Gingrich won over South Carolina voters during the 2012 Republican primary when the former House speaker slammed a CNN debate moderator over what he considered “despicable” questioning, arguing that the “destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country.” Gingrich would lose the nomination but leave behind a blueprint that Trump would embody. Conservatives loved how he hated the “fake news.” But few were aware of the strange symbiosis that enveloped his administration.
Trump gave as good as he got during press conferences, but his team was set against itself at times, and often consumed by the media at the expense of the administration’s mission. His son-in-law, a senior advisor in the last White House, said as much. The war between Jared Kushner and Steven Bannon was infamous in the West Wing and well-documented in the papers. Albeit almost always “on background.”
When Bannon was eventually fired, Kushner later wrote in his autobiography, another senior aide came to him joking that he had “a plan to split up Steve Bannon’s extensive workload. Hope [Hicks], you leak to Jonathan Swan at Axios. Jared, you call Mike Bender from the Wall Street Journal. I’ll call Jeremy Peters from the New York Times, and ... we’re done.”
Careers were catapulted and journalism prizes won on the ability to get the president’s inner circle to text back by deadline. Even when the headlines would be negative, Trump often called reporters directly. He still does. “I love being with her,” Trump said of Maggie Haberman during one of his multiple interviews with the star New York Times reporter. As president, he blasted her publicly as “a third-rate reporter.” After leaving the White House, he called her “my psychiatrist.”
The Trump cabinet didn’t just jockey for position in the press. Internal divisions were so extreme that officials would gauge their standing with the president by recent headlines or Fox News hits. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even made a joke of the dysfunction, promising that he would stay on in the administration “until he tweets me out of office.”
Trump was a bellicose president, and his base adored him for it. Some of his closest advisors still worried that an obsession with settling scores left him off balance. For instance, during the job interview for attorney general, Bill Barr reported that he told Trump that “the problem with immediately counterpunching ... is that you are letting your opponents pick the time and place of the fight.” Trump, Barr later wrote in his memoir, didn’t seem to take the advice. But DeSantis has.
The governor can be as pugnacious as the former president, and YouTube is full of clips from DeSantis fans and from the press chronicling his blow-for-blow battles with reporters. He has catapulted himself into the national conversation, in large part, through those fights with the media that he has labeled “the liberal elite’s Praetorian Guard.”
But the same reporters who enjoyed unprecedented access to Trump, possibly the most accessible president in modern history, have had a hard time getting ahold of DeSantis outside of his regular news conferences, leaving the New York Times to ask “Can Ron DeSantis Avoid Meeting the Press?”
“The old way of looking at it is: ‘I have to do every media hit that I possibly can, from as broad a political spectrum as I can, to reach as many people as possible,’” Nick Iarossi, a longtime DeSantis supporter and a lobbyist in Tallahassee, told the Times. “The new way of looking at it is: ‘I really don’t need to do that anymore. I can control how I want to message to voters through the mediums I choose.’”
DeSantis has followed an aggressive but more calculated blueprint, becoming a conservative media darling through frequent appearances on Fox News with Tucker Carlson and the Daily Wire with Ben Shapiro. It has been enough to bring him alongside Trump in the RealClearPolitics Average even though he has not yet declared. Trump remains the clear front runner with a 14.4-point advantage.
Mick Mulvaney doesn’t see much unique in the current DeSantis approach. He knows both men well. Mulvaney was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus with DeSantis before leaving Congress to join the Trump administration, first as director of the Office of Management and Budget and later as his second-to-last chief of staff. If the boast about avoiding “palace intrigue” and the admonishment not to leak become campaign promises, Mulvaney doesn’t see a clear competitive advantage. “I expect all of the challengers,” he told RCP, “to use a variation on the ‘Trump policies without the Trump baggage’ message.”
Disdain for the press has indeed become a feature of the right. According to Gallup, just 14% of Republicans say they have “a great deal or fair amount of confidence” in the media. Gripes among conservatives have turned from occasional complaints to the outright belief that a biased press is an enemy to their way of life.
Candidates see that, and they will say they don’t trust elite media, Tucker Carlson told the 2022 Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, last year. But figuring out who is play fighting with the press versus those who will shun them altogether, the Fox News host added, was critical to earning their vote. “You need to be really wary of candidates who care what the New York Times thinks. You really, really do,” he said. “And if you say that to Republican voters, they are like, ‘The New York Times is Communist! I don't even read it!’ Really? Because your leaders do. And they really care. They really, really care.”
DeSantis was happy to blast the press in Iowa last week. Like many Republicans, he has shown a willingness to punch back. Unlike some others though, he has a demonstrated ability to ignore their calls. “Don’t think that they’re coming to you in good faith,” he said in one broadside against the press. “They’re coming to you to be able to advance their agenda, and if you’re somebody that’s standing for our values, like Kim and me stand for, you are an impediment to their agenda.”
“So don’t play into it. Just speak the truth. Do your thing,” he continued before counseling that conservatives should “not give them the satisfaction that they are some type of neutral gatekeepers because they are not.”