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Philip Wegmann Opinion: A President, a Prosecutor, and a Porn Star

A porn star and a politically motivated prosecutor seem to have divided the Republican Party. Some Republicans believe Gov. Ron DeSantis was disloyal when referencing the underlying facts that could soon lead to the indictment of former President Donald Trump. Others do not.

The disagreement, one of the few times DeSantis has publicly split with Trump, could very well define the coming Republican presidential primary season.

After Trump predicted Saturday that he would soon be arrested, his loyalists publicly demanded that Republicans come to his aid. Many did, including several potential 2024 candidates. But DeSantis stayed radio silent, a move that infuriated the former president’s inner circle and prompted a subtle threat. “It has been over 24 hours and some people are still quiet,” the Trump campaign’s “War Room” tweeted Sunday. “History will judge their silence.”

At a press conference Monday, DeSantis broke his silence. And Trump didn’t like what he had to say. DeSantis criticized New York City’s elected District Attorney Alvin Bragg for considering prosecution of an ex-president, calling him “a Soros-funded prosecutor” and accusing him of weaponizing his office “to impose a political agenda on society at the expense of the rule of law and public safety.”

So far, so good, as least to Trump World. But then DeSantis brought up the root of the allegations against Trump, saying “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”

DeSantis was referencing the $130,000 payment Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, made to Stormy Daniels, an adult actress whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, just days ahead of Election Day in 2016. Bragg, who downgraded over half of felonies committed in New York last year to misdemeanors, openly campaigned on prosecuting Trump and is considering whether to charge him with falsifying financial records. Reportedly, he may upgrade misdemeanor charges into a felony.

After excoriating Bragg, DeSantis told reporters he would not get involved. “I have no interest in getting involved in some type of manufactured circus by some Soros DA. He’s trying to do a political spectacle. He’s trying to virtue signal for his base,” he said before adding, “I’ve got real issues I have to deal with here in the state of Florida.”

Trump and his family were apoplectic.

“Pure weakness. Now we know why he was silent all weekend. He’s totally owned by Karl Rove, Paul Ryan & his billionaire donors,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter. “100% Controlled Opposition.”

Trump Sr. responded by posting on his social media site, Truth Social, that DeSantis could soon “find out” about “false accusations and fake stories” in the future “when he’s unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman, even classmates that are ‘underage’ (or possibly a man!).” Trump also linked to unsubstantiated gossip by the liberal political action committee, MeidasTouch, that DeSantis had “partied with underaged girls.”

The episode played out like so many others, with Trump going on offense and DeSantis shrugging off the barbs. Trump has tried previously to get under the governor’s skin. Nicknames like “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “‘Meatball Ron” haven’t stuck. When Trump accused DeSantis of “grooming” underage girls last month, the governor replied that he faced “defamatory stuff” before, shrugging “it just goes with the territory – you gotta have a thick skin.”

Staffers in either camp were quick to praise and condemn. Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for the DeSantis 2018 gubernatorial campaign, told RCP that his old boss had given “a pitch perfect answer” and “showed his strength as a law-and-order candidate should he decide to run.” A prominent GOP operative countered that DeSantis had instead revealed how “he is a slave to ambition.”

“It is very bad politics. This is a critical moment,” the operative added. “I don’t know of any Republican voter that feels okay about what’s happening with President Trump.” The looming indictment of the former president, they said, was “the only thing that matters.”

With Trump at the center for the last half decade, Republican politics have revolved around these kinds of loyalty tests. But there are signs that the conservative orbit is changing. Hours before DeSantis weighed-in, Texas Rep. Chip Roy called into the “Glenn Beck Radio Program.”

“Look at the end of the day, you cannot walk away from the fact that the former president clearly paid a porn star off to hush up right before an election,” the Republican said.

“Correct,” the host replied.

One of the most outspoken conservatives in the House, Roy has publicly urged DeSantis to run but was also quick to condemn the Manhattan DA for targeting Trump. How could he do both? “We’re all going to be dead and gone and 20,40, or 50 years. We’ve got to save this republic for our kids and grandkids and the rule of law matters. And the rule of law can only be supported if you’re not politicizing it.”

Then Roy did something rare for Republicans. He held out the possibility that Trump could have committed a crime. “I’m not brushing aside what could be a misdemeanor,” he said, adding that it was “clearly a politicized effort to target the former president. That’s wrong.”

House Republicans are now calling for Bragg to testify about his motivations. Complaints about politicized prosecutors are the common thread among conservatives currently caught between DeSantis and Trump. Even before the current controversy, some on the right saw lenient prosecutors and high crime as the key to GOP controversies.

That strategy was spearheaded by the likes of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares and former Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Banks. Miyares told that group last May that they “absolutely have an opportunity” to swing public opinion if only they “highlight every single far-left special-interest prosecutor that has been elected in your state.” He urged House Republicans to find a progressive prosecutor, and “make them famous.”

Bragg, the prosecutor now in question, is certainly in the spotlight and so are his political donors. He received over a million dollars in campaign contributions from the Color of Change PAC funded by liberal billionaire George Soros.

“Democrats’ partisan abuse of power is sending our country down a dangerous path,” Banks told RCP, pointing to those contributions and calling the expected arrest of Trump “a blatant, politically motivated attack on the former president and his millions of supporters.”

“Fortunately,” he added, “most Americans won’t fall for this baseless witch-hunt.”

Those same Americans will also likely choose between Trump, DeSantis, and some other candidate when selecting a Republican presidential nominee. Because of the porn star and the prosecutor, the hostilities between the two Florida men are beginning to be laid bare.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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