MIAMI — When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went on a top political podcast last week, he panned the Covid lockdowns encouraged by former President Donald Trump early in the pandemic.
The remarks made for irresistible headlines — the two GOP heavyweights and possible 2024 contenders were feuding. Just days before, Trump had appeared to take a swipe at the popular governor, calling politicians who have refused to reveal their vaccination status “gutless.”
Both camps have denied any real friction and blamed “the media” for overhyping tensions, but Trump advisers say that they see a hidden hand at play: that of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is in a pitched battle with the former president over the future of the Republican Party in political races all over the country.
They pointed to the podcast itself, since DeSantis made the attention-grabbing remarks on “The Ruthless” program, which is co-hosted by McConnell’s longtime adviser, Josh Holmes. And shortly after the podcast was posted Friday, Twitter was flooded with the suggestion that DeSantis had knocked Trump by saying that one of his biggest regrets was not being “louder” about the harms of the lockdowns intended to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
To many in Trump’s camp, it all looked like a setup.
“I like Josh. Josh is great. But he’s a wholly owned subsidiary of McConnell World. And there’s no way you can tell me that this was all a coincidence,” said one top Trump adviser, echoing four others who spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not have authorization to speak publicly about private discussions in his political shop.
“Also, DeSantis and his staff knew what they were doing. How many Florida general-election voters are listening to ‘The Ruthless’ podcast?” the adviser asked in an interview. “Now that said, they might have been hoping for more out of Ron because let’s face it, he didn’t really criticize Trump. But they knew the media would instantly jump on it and wish-cast it into existence.”
The adviser said McConnell clearly sees DeSantis as a lesser of two evils and a way to irritate Trump.
Holmes said he didn’t want to get into a dispute over the interview, but he vehemently denied any ill intent toward Trump or any coordination with McConnell concerning the podcast. He declined to comment further beyond denying the speculation of McConnell’s involvement, laughing it off as “insane.”
One Republican operative scoffed at the notion that McConnell, who has said publicly that he would “absolutely” support Trump if he were to win the 2024 Republican nomination, is plotting to subvert his chances.
“I’m sure Josh Holmes would like you to believe that Mitch McConnell is behind the scenes, moving pieces against Trump,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist. “But I don’t think that’s it. I think that McConnell is wholly owned by Trump.”
McConnell’s Senate spokesman declined to comment, directing questions to John Ashbrook, who speaks for the minority leader on matters of electoral politics and is Holmes’s business partner. In a brief message, Ashbrook indicated McConnell would not respond to “background sniping.”
But there’s no dispute that Trump and McConnell have refused to speak to each other since a mob of Trump’s supporters rioted in the Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. McConnell criticized Trump for lying about his loss to Biden, and Trump has repeatedly called McConnell an “old crow” and a fake Republican while urging GOP senators to oust him as leader.
Trump is backing a slate of Republican senatorial hopefuls this year across the nation. In Alaska, Trump-backed candidate Kelly Tshibaka, who is challenging McConnell ally Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has pledged not to support McConnell for his leadership post. Trump is also pressuring candidates from Nevada to Alabama to North Carolina to do the same.
In Arizona, McConnell is striking back by trying to recruit Gov. Doug Ducey — a Trump foe — to run for the Senate. Trump has pledged never to back Ducey after he refused to help Trump overturn the 2020 presidential election results in his state.
“McConnell asked me to push on Ducey when I talked to him a month ago when I was in D.C.,” Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said. He added that he has texted Ducey since then but not made a pitch in person.
John McLaughlin, who polls for Trump, said of McConnell: “The Senate leader’s poll numbers aren’t as strong as President Trump’s. What McConnell can do is direct money and resources to candidates from Washington. That’s about it.”
McConnell is also an ally of and contributor to the campaign of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, whom Trump has targeted after she voted to impeach him in response to the Jan. 6 riot. She faces a primary challenger.
In Florida, DeSantis is running for his second and final term this year, not for Senate — a point…