In the homestretch of the 2018 campaign for Florida governor, Donald Trump walked into the hold room before a big rally, looked GOP nominee Ron DeSantis in the eye and pointed to a nearby political operative.
“Smartest thing you’ve ever done,” Trump told DeSantis, according to a source who witnessed it, referring to the Florida Republican’s decision to hire Susie Wiles to rescue his flagging gubernatorial campaign.
Trump was speaking with first-hand knowledge.
In 2016, when Trump was widely expected to lose Florida, he hired Wiles to manage his campaign, partly on the recommendation of then-Gov. Rick Scott, who had hired Wiles to run his campaign in 2010 when he was expected to lose. Both Trump and Scott won unexpected victories. So did DeSantis.
The real shocker, however, came this week. Wiles was fired from the Trump campaign Tuesday after DeSantis suspected she bore responsibility — unfairly her friends say — for the leak of internal correspondence showing how the new governor appeared to be selling access to special interests on golfing trips. Wiles was also pressured to part ways with Ballard Partners, a top state lobby firm.
The brutal public defrocking of Trump’s advisor in the nation’s largest swing state — which has the utmost strategic and sentimental value to Trump — left many Republican insiders and Trump campaign officials fuming that Wiles was mistreated. They also think it’s detrimental to Trump‘s chances in Florida.
“Losing Susie Wiles is unfortunate and it’s also dangerous. Susie is like a battle-tested field general,” said Michael Caputo, a former 2016 Trump campaign adviser who also, like Trump, is a part-time Florida resident. [He is no relation to the author.]
“If Trump loses Florida, he loses his presidency. And tinkering with the leadership that helped him win in the first place is just a bad idea,” Caputo said. “Very few people understand statewide Florida politics for an outsider candidate like Susie Wiles does. I know the president has deep appreciation for her magical touch in the state. I’m disappointed.”
Wiles would not comment for this story, but in the past has been careful to downplay her role in Trump’s win, saying the credit belongs solely to him. Of the 24 Republicans interviewed for this story on background or on the record, all echoed the same sentiment.
But nearly all of them — including four current and former Trump campaign officials — credited Wiles’ for bringing order to a disorderly campaign in 2016. They pointed to her deft management of presidential campaign logistics, her ability to navigate between the egos of Trump’s team and the warring Republican factions loyal to the national party, and also her skill at serving as a go-between with Sen. Marco Rubio’s re-election campaign, which he launched after losing in the bitter presidential primary to Trump earlier in the year.
Later, Wiles would play the role of Republican peacemaker between DeSantis and Scott, who had a tense relationship that began to color the new governor’s perceptions when he took over in Tallahassee.