As a major storm threatened the Florida coastline Monday morning, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference from the state’s emergency management headquarters, warning residents about the storm’s danger while flanked by state and national guard leaders.
Less than an hour earlier, Donald Trump had delivered a very different message to the public. The former president and GOP presidential front-runner, posting on social media, promoted an unsubstantiated rumor that DeSantis was dropping out of the presidential race to run against GOP Sen. Rick Scott, choosing to attack his rival even as Idalia began gaining strength over the Gulf of Mexico.
“Now that’s an interesting one, isn’t it?” Trump wrote, one of dozens of political attacks the Republican candidate launched from Truth Social even as the storm inundated Florida and other southeastern states with water.
For Florida’s two most prominent politicians, the week was a study in contrasting leadership styles. While DeSantis responded to the natural disaster in ways the public has long expected its government officials to act — holding press conferences and offering apolitical directions about managing its impact — Trump ignored the storm for days, instead posting a litany of insults aimed at his political adversaries while highlighting positive poll numbers for his campaign.
By the time Trump mentioned Hurricane Idalia in a Wednesday afternoon post, he had already posted more than 140 times on Truth Social since Monday on a multitude of subjects, even dredging up an old letter the late actor Kirk Douglas sent him in 1998. (The count of Trump’s posts includes times in which he reposted messages from other accounts.)
“Kirk was a real Movie ‘Star,’” Trump wrote Wednesday, before mentioning the hurricane. “Not many left today. They are mostly woke and weak!”
A spokesperson for Trump’s campaign attributed the president’s days-long silence to an abundance of caution, saying that he “wanted to make sure everyone was safe and listening to local authorities.”
Despite his mention of the hurricane on Wednesday, by Thursday Trump was back to DeSantis, hammering the governor over the cost of electricity and insurance in Florida.
The remarks put Trump in a league of his own among the field of GOP presidential contenders. None have attacked DeSantis in the days before or after the hurricane. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley postponed a campaign stop in South Carolina this week as forecasts showed the storm on track to pass through Georgia and the Carolinas after striking Florida. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott posted on his official X account directing South Carolinians to the state’s emergency management division before the hurricane made landfall in Florida.
They also underscore the degree to which Trump, in ways that often escape notice anymore, forgoes the traditional, sober-minded approach of nearly every other Republican and Democratic politician in times of crisis in favor of a style that keeps the focus on himself rather than imperiled communities.
The former president overcame that unorthodox approach to win a presidential race in 2016. But it does still carry some political risk for the candidate, including from some conservatives who bristle at his decision to stay on the attack against DeSantis even amid Florida’s recovery efforts.
“Even for a cheap-shot artist like Trump, this is really low,” conservative media figure Ed Morrisey posted on X on Thursday, responding to Trump’s criticism of the state’s electric rates. “He sounds more like he’s auditioning for MSNBC than the GOP ticket.”
Federal and state officials have said the true extent of the storm’s damage is still unknown. As of Thursday afternoon, roughly 188,000 customers in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were still without power. About 107,000 of those customers are in Florida, according to the tracking website Poweroutage.us.
Other images have shown some coastal communities in the state, like Cedar Key, inundated with water, prompting fears that residents there would be forced to rebuild their homes and businesses.
DeSantis has largely set politics aside in the face of the hurricane. His presidential campaign temporarily paused its fundraising pleas on Tuesday and Wednesday, and he’s been hunkered down in Tallahassee meeting with state and federal emergency officials and giving regular briefings on the impacts of the storm.
Since Monday, DeSantis has done 21 media interviews and press conferences, according to a person familiar with the governor’s schedule. Asked during one briefing for his thoughts on Trump’s silence on the hurricane, DeSantis demurred.
“It’s not my concern,” DeSantis said on Wednesday. “My concern is protecting the people of Florida, being ready to go. And we’ve done that.”
He’s also spoken more than once with one of his main political foes, President Joe Biden, who called the governor on Thursday morning to let him know that he had signed a major disaster declaration for Florida. Biden, in fact, lauded DeSantis on Wednesday for his cooperation in the hurricane response, saying that both men were focused solely on the recovery efforts.
“I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help, and I trust him to be able to suggest this is not about politics, this is about taking care of the people of his state,” Biden said.
Biden is slated to travel to Florida on Saturday, though it wasn’t immediately clear whether he plans to meet with DeSantis while he’s in the state. But Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, speaking from the White House, told reporters Thursday that they have met every other time Biden has been in the state.
DeSantis and Biden toured the aftermath of the Surfside building collapse in 2021 and areas most affected by Hurricane Ian last year.
“They are very collegial,” Sherwood-Randall said.
For DeSantis’ allies, the hurricane response is a key moment for both his governorship and his presidential campaign, offering him an opportunity to showcase what they have long argued is his greatest political strength: his leadership style.
“I think it’s important for the people of Florida that Gov. DeSantis get the response to the hurricane right,” Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor, said. “The governor is back in the state, taking care of the people he was elected to serve. If that takes him off the campaign trail for a bit, so be it. I don’t think that’s the first thing on the governor’s mind right now.”
McClatchy Senior National Security and White House Correspondent contributed reporting.