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How Trump’s Florida ‘field general’ got kneecapped

A power play by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ousted the woman responsible for winning Trump Florida in 2016.

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.

Increasingly, though, DeSantis loyalists began to view Wiles as too loyal to Scott.

She had been brought into DeSantis’ orbit just a month before Election Day 2018 to revive what many Republicans viewed as a mistake-prone campaign limping through the final months of the race against Democrat Andrew Gillum. DeSantis eked out a win following a recount.

But tensions and suspicions grew, especially after the two most important political advisers in DeSantis’ orbit — chief of staff Shane Strum and his wife, Casey DeSantis — went to the Florida GOP headquarters in Tallahassee in April to check it out. Among some DeSantis insiders, there was a feeling that the party was stocked with “Susie people,” setting off a chain of events that led to DeSantis and Strum asking the Trump campaign for a new hand-picked top staffer at the state party.

The relationship between Wiles and Strum had deteriorated beyond repair, or as one veteran Republican lobbyist told POLITICO in August it had “been poisoned,” which both Strum and Wiles have denied. DeSantis, according to two sources, also became frustrated with word in Tallahassee’s gossipy political circles that Wiles needed to be hired as a lobbyist to have influence with his administration.

When the Tampa Bay Times published internal DeSantis fundraising documents and emails bearing Wiles’ name outlining an “aggressive” fundraising scheme that included lobbyists ponying up big bucks to meet with the governor, it was the final straw for DeSantis, who blamed Wiles for the leak.

During a phone call with Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale — the governor and Parscale speak regularly — DeSantis complained about Wiles. DeSantis donors in Florida also contacted the Trump campaign and lobbied for her ouster, a source said.

Wiles was pushed out Tuesday, less than a year after Trump lauded her hiring before he took the stage at an Oct. 31 rally near Fort Myers.

The DeSantis power play underscored the clout the swing-state governor has with Trump and his campaign in Florida. Aside from Florida’s crucial role in the Electoral College, the Trump campaign has deep roots in the state — it’s home to the president’s winter resort, Mar-a-Lago, as well as Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio and Parscale, a recent transplant.

DeSantis owes his political fortunes statewide in Florida to Trump, whose endorsement of the once-little-known congressman gave him a critical edge in the GOP primary against longtime Republican figure Adam Putnam, then the state’s agriculture commissioner. But now, Trump needs DeSantis more than the governor needs the president.

To her friends, the abrupt termination appeared unnecessarily punitive: Wiles had been serving in an advisory role to the campaign and had not done much this year as she attended to health and family issues.

Those who know Wiles say they don’t believe she would be so disloyal as to leak documents in the first place — especially such sensitive ones that bear her name.

“If anyone thinks it’s a leak by Susie Wiles, they’re dumb,” said Curt Anderson, a longtime adviser to Scott.

“She’s level-headed, doesn’t get excited, is detailed and organized and she doesn’t get off track,” Anderson said. “She’s not some flashy, loud-mouth ad-maker or consultant. She does her job and does it well.”

Trump aides said no replacement for her has been settled on, and some expressed skepticism that someone would formally fill that position. Still, there was hope among some that Wiles would make a comeback if the race in Florida gets too close for comfort.

“The moment something goes wrong in Florida, Trump won’t give a fuck about what Ron DeSantis thinks,” said one Trump advisor. “Trump made DeSantis and if he objects to Susie coming back, he’ll be told to shut the fuck up and mind his own business.”

Trump’s on-again-off-again adviser Roger Stone, who initially advised his presidential campaign in 2016 and is also a Florida resident, said he believes the 2020 campaign will be tough and, though he believes Trump will win, it makes little sense to remove someone with the institutional knowledge of Wiles.

“She’s probably the single-most effective operative in the state. She’s delivered not one, not two, but three times: Trump, DeSantis and Scott,” Stone said. “This is a mistake they might regret.”



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