DeSantis Reunites With a Key Adviser as Campaign Plans Unfold

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida plans to install his former congressional chief of staff as a senior adviser specializing in national security when he formally begins his presidential campaign, according to three people briefed on the plans.

Dustin Carmack served as a key aide to Mr. DeSantis, whose tenure in the House lasted from 2013 until 2018, and he was chief of staff for the director of national intelligence during the Trump administration. Now at the Heritage Foundation, Mr. Carmack intends to leave that post to join the DeSantis campaign-in-waiting on the payroll of the Republican Party of Florida, the people said.

The party apparatus has become something of a staging ground for prospective DeSantis campaign staff while the governor waits to make an official announcement.

The planned appointment makes Mr. Carmack the most significant prospective policy hire to date for a DeSantis campaign. It indicates the governor will continue his pattern of filling key roles with trusted loyalists. Traditional Republican foreign policy elites, who are monitoring Mr. DeSantis’s every move for clues about his intentions, will most likely be relieved that, in Mr. Carmack, Mr. DeSantis will have an adviser who leans more hawkish than the governor’s allies on the Tucker Carlson-adjacent New Right.

Mr. Carmack’s portfolio with an eventual DeSantis campaign will be broadly focused on policy. But one of his key areas of expertise is national security, with a focus on cybersecurity.

Mr. Carmack did not respond to requests for comment. An official with the Republican Party of Florida did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Mr. DeSantis, Lindsey Curnutte, declined to comment.

During his most recent stint at Heritage, Mr. Carmack took a hawkish approach to his foreign policy writings, especially as they related to cybersecurity and Russia and China.

In an article in The Daily Signal on July 20, 2021, Mr. Carmack argued that President Biden should consider “offensive cyber reprisals” or tougher sanctions to hit back against Chinese cyberattacks.

“As we move further into the digital age, we need to take the kid gloves off when dealing with China,” he wrote.

And, while Mr. DeSantis has recently declared that defending Ukraine is not a vital national interest, Mr. Carmack is on the record as a Ukraine hawk. He has called on the Biden administration to include “offensive cyber operations in the package of military assistance to Ukraine.”

“The United States has sent Ukraine a variety of military equipment, including killer drones, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles, small arms and ammunition,” he said in an April 2022 article co-written with Michael J. Ellis, the former senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council. “We should do more.”

“If ordered,” Mr. Carmack and Mr. Ellis wrote, “U.S. Cyber Command could develop the ability to temporarily disable key Russian military, intelligence or logistics networks. This would be a tremendous boon to Ukrainian forces. Moreover, such cyber operations would not be clearly traceable back to the U.S. — reducing the possibility of escalating tensions with Russia.”

When Mr. DeSantis previously supported a more hawkish posture toward Russia, as a congressman in 2015, Mr. Carmack was his chief of staff.

As a sitting governor and undeclared candidate, Mr. DeSantis has no official campaign apparatus. Instead, a super PAC that is backing him has been making a number of hires, as has the Republican Party of Florida, from which staff members are expected to move to an eventual campaign.

Mr. DeSantis, who is polling the closest to former President Donald J. Trump but is still trailing by a large margin in national polls of the Republican primary electorate, is not expected to declare a candidacy until after the Florida legislative session ends in May.

That delay is giving Mr. Trump, who announced his candidacy in November, and his allies a window to try to define Mr. DeSantis and harden public opinion about him before he can formally enter the race. The dynamic of the 2024 campaign was upended on Thursday, however, when a grand jury in Manhattan voted to indict Mr. Trump in a hush-money case.

Make America Great Again Inc., the super PAC supporting Mr. Trump’s candidacy, has begun running commercials for the first time, with a roughly $1.3 million ad buy on CNN and Fox News for a spot attacking Mr. DeSantis.

As expected, the ad focuses on Mr. DeSantis’s votes on Social Security and Medicare while he was a congressman. He once vocally supported restructuring both programs and raising the retirement age when he was a budget hawk in 2012. It’s a position that Mr. Trump has attacked him for relentlessly, and with reason: Such votes have historically been unpopular with seniors, who make up a substantial chunk of the Republican voting base.

“He’s just not ready to be president,” the ad narrator intones.

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