Donald Trump’s allies are stepping up their fight against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, formally accusing him of violating state ethics and election laws with his “shadow presidential campaign.”
Make America Great Again Inc. will file a 15-page complaint with the Florida Ethics Commission on Wednesday, a draft of which was obtained exclusively by NBC News.
He is asking the commission to investigate whether DeSantis’ pro-super PACs, his “personally lucrative book tour” and the ongoing wave of campaign contributions at the state level are, among other things, illegal because they serve his personal political goals for his personal benefit, finances benefits at the expense of Florida taxpayers and is intended to influence his official decision to resign.
Since Trump announced in November that he would run for president again, he has become openly hostile to former political patron DeSantis, who is now expected to be his primary challenger in the Republican primary. That includes branding DeSantis with Trump’s trademark nicknames and trying to frame him as a political machete that won’t sit well with the GOP base.
But the complaint is the first time Trump supporters have taken the dispute from campaign rhetoric to a formal legal battle.
“Adding this to the list of frivolous and politically motivated attacks – using government ethics for partisan purposes is inappropriate,” said Taryn Fenske, DeSantis director of communications.
Trump allies face tough orders for the committee to investigate DeSantis after he named five of the nine members.
In theory, if he faces penalties, they could include fines, public censure, ballot disqualification, removal from office or impeachment.
The draft complaint describes actions taken by DeSantis in recent months in what appears to be an upcoming presidential election.
DeSantis is expected to run for president but has yet to officially announce. But the complaint claims he already checked all the boxes for someone considering a run for the White House, including stops in primary states; write a book (its title is “The Courage to Be Free”); raising tens of millions of dollars for a state-level committee that could be turned over to a federal super PAC; and looking at a number of supporting super PACs and outside nonprofit groups, some of which have expressed their intention to run for DeSantis for president.
The pro-Trump super PAC says the actions together violate a handful of Florida laws that deal with the illegal acceptance of gifts by public officials.
“This letter contains ample evidence to support the Florida Ethics Commission’s probable conclusion that Governor DeSantis, along with certain political committees, political consultants, and 501(c)(4) organizations, solicited and received millions of dollars in illegal donations in violation to Florida state ethics laws and the Florida Constitution,” the complaint states.
This is addressed to Ethics Committee Chair Glenton Gilzean, nominated by DeSantis.
DeSantis has repeatedly brushed off questions about whether he is considering a run for president, and his allies have insisted he focus on controlling Florida rather than planning a presidential campaign.
Trump’s team relies in part on Florida’s resignation law in its appeal, which requires politicians to resign if the terms of the two positions overlap. DeSantis was re-elected to a second four-year term last year by a nearly 20-point margin. Florida’s lawmakers have changed the law before, most notably when former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist was tapped to run on John McCain’s 2008 presidential ticket. The law was already amended in 2018, but Republican legislative leaders have openly discussed changing it in the current House session because of DeSantis’ potential presidential bid.
“If a person who is the governor of Florida runs for president, I think he should be allowed to do that,” state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a Republican, told reporters in November.
Trump’s allies argue that because the law has not yet been changed, any gifts or money accepted to influence his decision to leave office and run for president would violate a state law that prohibits officials from accepting gifts intended to influence an “official action.”
The ethics complaint specifically mentions a new Virginia-based super PAC called Run, Ron, Run!, created by Ken Cuccinelli, a former top official in the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security.
“The future of America is in Ron DeSantis,” Cuccinelli said last week in a commercial introducing the new committee.
The commission, like Cuccinelli and other super PACs seen as less profitable vehicles for DeSanti’s supporters, constitutes an illegal effort to force the resignation of DeSantis, MAGA Inc. the gross complaint alleges.
“Run, Ron, Run!, established on March 8, 2023, is for the sole purpose of persuading Governor DeSantis to run for President and to exercise official discretion to file an irrevocable resignation under the Florida Divorce Act.” it says.
DeSantis has also raised more than $10 million since the start of the year for a national political committee called Friends of Ron DeSantis. The committee has long been his main fundraising vehicle and money can go to a federal super PAC, but Trump’s team says that because DeSantis had term limits, the committee’s continued spending represents an effort to bolster his presidential candidacy.
“Despite publicly teasing his private decision to run for office,” the draft complaint states, “Friends of Governor DeSantis’ Florida Political Committee, Ron DeSantis, made Governor DeSantis’ intentions clear with a new ad campaign apparently promoting his book.” It’s just the price you have to pay to save this country.”