Clip: DeSantis criticizes Trump, Manhattan DA’s handling of hush-money case

Mar. 24, 2023 AT 8:41 p.m. EDT

After months of jabs, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis took aim at Trump for the first time over the hush-money investigation in New York. But DeSantis, who is one of Trump’s likely 2024 challengers, went on to say the Manhattan district attorney’s office was “pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office.”

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Laura Barron-Lopez: It is unclear how Trump's growing legal issues will impact his support among the Republican base. But after months of jabs, one of Trump's likely 2024 challengers, Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, took aim at him for the first time.

Ron DeSantis: I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just -- I can't speak to that.

Laura Barron-Lopez: But DeSantis went on to say the Manhattan D.A.'s office was, quote, pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing office.

That was a very cautious jab at Trump there from DeSantis.

Hans Nichols: Yes. I think the important thing is he is making the jabs, right? Up to this point, no one has really taken -- I mean, Chris Christie, Mike Pence a little bit, but this is the first time DeSantis has really thrown a punch, not to do this all on boxing metaphors during March, which should only be basketball metaphors. But you saw him taking shots.

And, you know, he walked it back a little bit but I am not so sure the walking back or the sort of when he kind of says, well, he sanitizes a little bit, I do not know if that matters with Trump, right? You kind of have an audience of one here. And the audience of one is Donald Trump to see to what extent he responds and then it gets interesting. And I think we are just at the beginning of this. But I think what we learned from DeSantis this week is that he is in this fight and he is prepared to take a swing.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And he's trying to have it both ways essentially there, hit Trump, also defend him in the hush money payment case. But, Heather, DeSantis also backtracked on recent comments that he made about Ukraine. He had said that Russia's invasion was a territorial dispute at first, now he is calling it a real invasion and called Russian President Putin a war criminal. What is behind that change?

Heather Caygle: I mean, I think if you look at the backlash he received from establishment Republicans, and DeSantis will claim that he does not want the support of the establishment, sure, that helps him in a primary. But, in reality, if you are going to be the general candidate, you do need the support of the establishment, right?

But the backlash on Capitol Hill, especially from Senate Republicans who are mostly united and aligned behind continuing to fund this war and support Ukraine, and also the donors. A lot of them, frankly, were just taken aback by this. I think a lot of folks realize Republicans, if you talk to them on the Hill, they see him as their establishment candidate.

Now, Chip Roy is the only member of Congress who has endorsed him so far, and he is conservative and was a longtime Trump-backer, but if you talk to Republicans especially on the Senate side privately, they see him as kind of Trump light, someone who can maybe bring this base along, if anyone can that's not Trump, but will also appeal to more establishment Republicans and the donor base that they are looking at. And so a lot of them, I think, just thought this was a very unnecessary error.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Republicans think that DeSantis can bring the base along in part because he is very much aligned with the former president on policy and message, Eugene. But aren't we seeing that base actually move away from Trump and towards DeSantis or anyone else that's in or potentially going to get into the 2024 field?

Eugene Daniels: The short answer, no, not seeing that, right? That's the thing that has been, I think, frustrating for a lot of Republicans whose names are not Donald Trump for years is that his base is with him. They have been with him from the very, very beginning and it is hard to shake that. I mean, we went through January 6th, all types of things that he has said and done over the years, and they haven t moved.

And I will say with DeSantis punching a little bit or you have Pence doing the same thing, it has to be sustained, and more importantly, it has to be on a debate state. It can't just be in a dark room where reporters can't record or not in an interview. It can't just be sitting down with Piers Morgan. It needs to be in front of Donald Trump to see how he reacts to it as well, because voters have not seen that. It did not happen in 2016 and when it did with Marco Rubio, for example, it did not go over very well, right?

And so that is something that when I talk to some of these strategists who want someone like Ron DeSantis to jump in and be that Trump light, that is what they want to see, but they also -- one of the other reasons they like Ron DeSantis is not just because he is like tough with media and reporters, it is because he has been able to use the levers of government in Florida to take on the cultural issues that they care about, right? And that is something I think that Republicans, especially conservatives, are looking to do on the federal level. And that is another reason that he is their man to beat him, I think.

Hans Nichols: They also like that he won. They like the margin. I mean, he like -- they like -- and you saw DeSantis sort of wink at that when he says, I'm a winner, talking about putting points on the board. But that's like when you have -- the core of the DeSantis is sort (INAUDIBLE) boomed with or a bit interested, is that he won, he won big in a state that used to be tight. And donors look and notice that.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Right. Florida is very different, though, than a lot of the swing states across the country where Trump didn't win.

But Republicans back in Washington are also working out on another disagreement over increasing the debt ceiling, which needs to be done to prevent a default, a fiscal cliff, which, as we all know, would cause catastrophic damage, send the economy potentially into a recession and the U.S. would default, not be able to pay its obligations.

But, Heather, Punchbowl was just reporting about this as House Republicans are demanding that President Biden negotiate over spending cuts in order for an exchange on increasing the debt ceiling. They're also struggling amongst themselves to even figure out what spending cuts they are trying to do. Where is this all headed?

Heather Caygle: Yes. So, right now, Democrats, and including Biden, are saying, show us your plan, put your budget out, right? We put ours out, you may not like it, but show us what you have. Because, remember, House Republicans want to roll this back to fiscal 2022 levels but they do not want to touch defense, they don't want to touch most entitlements. So, where are these cuts going to come from?

Well, the problem is they only have a five-seat majority in the House and most of them do not agree on what these cuts are. So, they have not put a budget out yet. They keep saying that they will probably put something out in April or maybe as late as May, but in the meantime, they want Biden to continue to negotiate with them. If you look at Democrats, and Democrats say, we have nothing to negotiate. What are we supposed to do?

So, it is a very interesting position that they have put themselves in. And we actually reported this morning that Senate Republicans are getting a little bit nervous about this and saying, all right, we are getting close, we need to get you guys to the table and figure it out.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Hans, do you think that there is any appetite among Republicans? I know Heather is essentially saying they still want those spending cuts. But any appetite for a clean debt ceiling increase given --

Hans Nichols:  I mean, there might be privately but none that anyone can take and expect to still be speaker of the House, right? So, I mean, that is McCarthy's challenge and he's letting the House work its wheel. And I think, Heather, you guys are doing a great job, you guys at Politico too, sort of on how he has kept his coalition together and how he has gotten the votes, and that is by listening.

And so, you know, if you we are all going to be taking a bet right now on whether or not it's going to be April or May for the budget taking over, right, it's going to be May, there has to be a lot more conversations on just what is doable.

And I think, you know, we might all be nervous about it, Wall Street might be nervous about it, there are some Senate Republicans that are nervous about it. The nervousness does not seem to have really seeped into the core of the House Republican conference. And until that does, and no one knows what the event is going to be that makes them nervous, is it going to be a massive market correction, is it going to be a big sell-off, no one really knows yet, until that happens, I think, where all kinds of, sort of in the prelims on this and not really in the fight yet.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And, Eugene, the recent bank failure prompted some Republicans to argue that we should make spending cuts. This is a good reason to make spending cuts. What has the White House response been to that?

Eugene Daniels: Yes. I talked to a White House aide today about this exact same issue, and they said, especially with the SVB issue showed, is that, one, it had nothing to do with spending cuts, it was about regulation, right, that these things don't have much to do with each other. There were also some Republicans who are saying this proves that we should not be moving the debt limit, that we shouldn't do that, and that's another thing, obviously, the White House, surprise, does not agree with, right?

They don't want these things coupled. I don't see them changing their mind on that. And they -- over and over, aides will tell you in the White House that Republicans have done this before and they eventually blink, right? They eventually shake kind of -- the donors start panicking, the business community starts to panic and then Republicans kind of get in line.

The House Republicans, this set of house Republicans do not seem to have that same kind of fear of those groups of folks. And so it's the Senate that I think we should be watching, right, Senate Republicans who are going to have to kind of take this over at some point. That is how a lot of folks in the White House feel. Because they do not see Kevin McCarthy, though he is listening, they are worried that he is not going to be able to lead his people into doing something that could keep this country from economic catastrophe.

And we have some income that is going to be coming into the government based on taxes in April. That will kind of tell us exactly when that X date is. Right now, it may be August, it might be September, we might need to push it off, but it is very unclear and that is not good for anybody.

Laura Barron-Lopez: No, it is not good at all. And let's hope that we don't reach economic catastrophe at all.

But we have to leave it there for now. And so thank you to my panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting.

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