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Don’t Expect DeSantis to Deliver the GOP from Trumpian Abuses of Power
The Florida governor is all too happy to follow the Trump model of busting norms and cutting ethical corners.
FOR ANYONE SEEKING AN ALTERNATIVE to another cronies-first, ethics-last Donald Trump presidency, bad news: Ron DeSantis is not the answer. The Florida governor is not only losing to Trump more than 2-to-1 in polls of the GOP primary field, he is seeming more like Trump each day in his disregard for rules, laws, norms, constitutions, and even the Bible-based Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Before the January 6th Capitol attack intended to keep Trump in office after his 2020 loss, the Trump moment that gutted me most was when, in July 2020, he commuted his friend Roger Stone’s impending prison sentence after Stone was convicted on seven felony counts, including lying and witness tampering in the Russia investigation to protect Trump. Politicians from Nancy Pelosi to Mitt Romney called it corruption on a shocking scale—and then a few months later Trump gave full pardons to Stone, his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Charles Kushner, his daughter’s father-in-law.
Because Trump has so often used his pardon power as a political tool, as Gabriel Schoenfeld noted in The Bulwark yesterday, it is appalling but certainly no surprise that he has repeatedly floated pardons for hundreds of people convicted in connection with the Capitol attack, most recently at the CNN town hall. Now we have DeSantis, so far the only potential intra-party threat to Trump’s comeback plan, holding out the possibility of pardons on “day one” for January 6th defendants—including Trump himself.
Just to put that in perspective: More than 1,033 people had been arrested as of May 5, about 570 had pleaded guilty to charges, and another 94 were convicted, the Justice Department said in its latest update. Eleven people were charged with seditious conspiracy and one of them, Oath Keepers founder and leader Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, was sentenced last week to 18 years in prison and 36 months of supervised release—the longest sentence to date in a January 6th case.
Some commentators have said the January 6th pardon suggestions alone should bar both Trump and DeSantis from running for president, much less serving. I agree: They are disqualifying. Beyond even that, though, there’s increasing evidence that far from being a GOP savior, DeSantis—like Trump—behaves like he’s got a divine right to do anything he wants without fear of accountability.
Trump broke the law in 2019 by withholding military aid from Ukraine that Congress had already approved, substituting “his own policy priorities” for the law Congress had already passed, the General Accounting Office concluded. The House impeached Trump that year for his “perfect phone call” conditioning the aid on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky finding dirt on Joe Biden, but the Senate acquitted him. And the Supreme Court gave Trump the okay to divert billions of dollars Congress had approved for the military to build his wall on the U.S.-Mexico border—even though the Constitution gives Congress “the power of the purse” and Congress, well aware of how much money Trump wanted, had already denied most of his request.
NOW WE HAVE DESANTIS BUSTING NORMS, cutting ethical corners, and getting crosswise with both the Florida constitution and the U.S. Constitution he’d have to uphold as president.
The map of U.S. House districts written by Florida’s overwhelmingly GOP legislature wasn’t partisan enough for DeSantis, so he drew his own and steamrolled over objections from fellow Republicans. “No Florida governor had ever pushed their own district lines before,” ProPublica reported, and DeSantis did it with partisan help that may have violated the state constitution. DeSantis also got state Republicans to change Florida law so he could keep his job while running for president.
Last week, NBC News reported that aides from the governor’s office were soliciting and possibly tracking presidential campaign contributions from lobbyists while the state budget, filled with projects important to them, was still awaiting DeSantis’s line-item veto pen and eventual signature. Ten lobbyists told NBC this was unheard of, especially with their business pending on his desk. It’s unclear whether it was illegal, but the unsavory ethics and optics are obvious.
For government ethics compulsives (guilty, sorry), this will bring back the many times the highest-ranking officials of the Trump White House violated the Hatch Act, which says they cannot use their official authority or influence to interfere with campaigns and elections. There are many holes in the act—including that it does not ban holding a political convention at the White House, presidents and vice presidents are exempt, and enforcement is left to presidents. Even so, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which oversees the act, found that at least 13 senior officials in the Trump administration committed violations in media appearances or public events.
Their illegal acts included “supporting or opposing a candidate for partisan political office while speaking in an official capacity” and using their official authority to promote Trump’s re-election at the 2020 GOP convention, the OSC wrote in its extensive November 2021 report. One blatant example was a videotaped naturalization ceremony featuring Trump and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. “The evidence shows that the ceremony was orchestrated to create content that would be shown” at the convention and despite many warnings, it was, the OSC said.
The table of contents alone refers to “Pervasive Hatch Act Violations,” an “Unprecedented Number of Hatch Act Complaints,” and an administration that “Approved of Senior Officials Illegally Campaigning on Behalf of President Trump.” The law is “only as effective in ensuring a depoliticized federal workforce as the president decides it will be,” the authors said. “Where, as happened in the Trump administration, the White House chooses to ignore the Hatch Act’s requirements, there is currently no mechanism for holding senior administration officials accountable for violating the law.” The maddening upshot: Trump essentially created “a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch.”
WOULD DESANTIS and his staff “go there”? Aides on the state payroll pressing lobbyists for national campaign donations, with big stakes in the balance, is not an encouraging sign. Nor are inadequate federal laws that rendered Trump World immune to consequences. The OSC report notes that the office had issued two reports on White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s “repeated, flagrant violations” and even called on Trump to “remove her from federal service.” But he did not.
As for the U.S. Constitution, DeSantis and his administration are magnets for legal challenges to the constitutionality of laws restricting or banning protests, voting and registration (three new lawsuits filed just last week), workplace training programs, higher education studies on race and gender, and K-12 discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity. The suits claim violations of First Amendment rights to free speech and association and the Fourteenth Amendment ensuring that citizens have equal protection and laws do not abridge their “privileges and immunities.”
The most famous lawsuit is the Walt Disney Company’s claim that DeSantis is weaponizing his position to retaliate for a former CEO’s public criticism of the “Don’t Say Gay” law limiting classroom speech on LGBTQ issues. DeSantis strengthened Disney’s case by making clear in his new book, repeated interviews, and a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he was going after Disney because it opposed one of his policies—in other words, for political speech that is constitutionally protected. It was another echo of Trump, who constantly says the quiet, potentially illegal part out loud (see again: CNN town hall).
There are many ways I would consider DeSantis a greater threat to the public welfare than Trump, given his cruel Florida record on education, race, abortion, immigration, and the health, safety, and rights of the LGBTQ community. He’s anti-science and so is his surgeon general, as Scientific American argues. He’s even attacked the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform law that Trump signed and few in Congress opposed.
All of this is related, but my focus here is the disturbing signals DeSantis is sending about his moral code and U.S. democracy. They suggest Trump is not the only White House contender who, if elected, would feel entitled to run roughshod over America’s laws, values, and the constitutional rights of people who don’t look or think like them.
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