Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump were, for the moment, great political allies. The two were even developing a friendship that, impressively, seemed to transcend the campaign trail. What was on the horizon, though, was not so idyllic.
Much of that, at least early on, was driven by DeSantis’s wife.
Casey DeSantis was born in Ohio in 1980 and met her future husband on a driving range at the University of North Florida. The two were married in 2009, less than three years before DeSantis’s congressional run. Hindsight, and anyone with even a cursory understanding of modern Florida politics, will tell you that this fact provides a snapshot of the politically ambitious mindset of the couple. And anyone who understands DeSantis’s thought processes will divulge that Casey—a former Jacksonville television personality—is the most influential adviser and powerful force in DeSantis’s universe. This force was put on display during the general gubernatorial election as DeSantis’s campaign prepared the now infamous “Build the Wall” ad.
Few things during DeSantis’s 2018 campaign got more attention—and triggered more outrage among libs, another desired outcome—than the Trump-worshipping TV spot that featured Ron and Casey’s daughter Madison paying tribute to Trump’s southern border wall. The ad shows DeSantis using gleeful baby talk, encouraging Madison to “build the wall” as she plays with building blocks. In the same ad, he reads to his then infant son, Mason, from a book meant to evoke Trump’s former reality show, The Apprentice. “You’re fired!” DeSantis reads before noting to Mason, “That’s my favorite part.” The ad concludes with DeSantis using a Make America Great Again campaign sign to teach Madison to read.
The ad was narrated by Casey DeSantis, who played the main role in the ad but who was anything but supportive behind the scenes. Though she was a lifelong conservative and DeSantis’s most trusted adviser by a long shot, she had never been a natural Trump supporter. She thought the TV ad was at best silly and at worst humiliating and was completely opposed to running it. And Ron DeSantis would not green-light the spot without her approval.
“Casey was apprehensive about the wall commercial,” said a former DeSantis campaign staffer. “She did not have a great deal of comfort in [Ron’s] marrying himself to Trump. But the ad was not going to run without her approval, and they had to convince her to agree. There were direct conversations on this.”
Despite her initial protests, Casey finally relented. She understood that Trump’s power with the Republican base was at its peak. He could make political fortunes and end them, all in a single tweet. If Ron DeSantis was to continue on the promising political trajectory he and Casey had laid out, she knew she had to swallow her pride and play the part.
“She values winning and destiny way more than love, or hate, or however you want to say it,” the former campaign staffer said. “It was part of a winning strategy. [DeSantis] needed Trump in many ways, and Trumpism was winning Republican primaries at that point. Just look at how Adam Putnam begged to be accepted into Trump’s world even after Trump endorsed DeSantis.”
In an interview conducted shortly after the ad started airing, Casey DeSantis said it was designed to push back on an onslaught of negative ads targeting their campaign, most of which came from Putnam-backing Republican establishment types.
“There was seventeen—I think it was $17 million in attack ads up against Ron. Special interest, and so that is kind of where we were,” she told Jacksonville TV station First Coast News in 2018. “And we said, ‘Well, how do we respond?’ We responded with humor, and we had fun. I think a lot of people liked it, and they got the joke.”
Eventually, word started getting back to Trump that Casey and, by extension, Ron were less than enthusiastic about the ad and had even mocked the idea in the middle of the shoot.
The idea that the DeSantis duo was smirking at Trump’s immigration masterpiece—the border wall—was, to Trump, an early example of DeSantis’s lack of gratitude. Fanning the flames was persistent chatter that the production company behind the shoot had an outtakes reel that showed video of Casey and Ron speaking about the spot in disparaging terms.
“It somehow got back to Trump, and he apparently said, ‘Get me the fucking tape,’” said Rick Wilson, who was a veteran Republican ad maker before cofounding the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project. “I doubt he or his team ever actually saw a tape, but apparently it showed the two laughing about the idea for the ad, and even hearing about that did not sit well with Trump.”
A Trump campaign aide acknowledged they were aware of the outtakes and said of Trump himself, “I know he knew.”
Excerpted from SWAMP MONSTERS by Matt Dixon. Copyright © 2024 by Matt Dixon. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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