Donald J. Trump spent much of the past year teasing a presidential campaign, telling New York magazine last summer that he had “already made that decision” on whether to run and promising his rally crowds for months that they would be “very happy” about his choice.
Now, Mr. Trump’s allies are accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida of doing the same — but insisting that he has violated state law.
MAGA Inc., a super PAC supporting Mr. Trump, filed a complaint with Florida officials on Wednesday, alleging that Mr. DeSantis — the former president’s chief potential rival for the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination — is operating a shadow presidential campaign.
The super PAC said that Mr. DeSantis should be considered a presidential candidate because he has taken meetings with donors, raised money for a political committee and toured the country to sell books, while allies are reaching out to potential campaign aides.
“Governor DeSantis’s failure to declare his candidacy is no mere oversight,” reads the MAGA Inc. complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics. “It is a coordinated effort specifically designed for him to accept, as unethical gifts, illegal campaign contributions and certain personal benefits.”
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The pro-Trump super PAC, which sent the complaint via certified mail on Wednesday, is asking the state commission to impose “the most severe penalties” under Florida ethics law, which include, among other things, impeachment, removal from office, public censure and ballot disqualification. NBC News earlier reported on the complaint on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman in the governor’s office, Taryn Fenske, said the complaint was part of a “list of frivolous and politically motivated attacks,” adding, “It’s inappropriate to use state ethics complaints for partisan purposes.”
While Mr. DeSantis hasn’t formally declared a White House bid, he is checking all the boxes of a potential candidate. He published a book that could double as the outline of a 2024 campaign platform and has been promoting the book on a nationwide tour — including stops in states that are hosting the first three Republican primary contests. He has also laid out foreign policy positions this week on Fox News.
The allegations from the pro-Trump group echo a similar complaint filed against Mr. Trump last year in March by a Democratic super PAC. In that complaint, the Democratic group, American Bridge, argued to the Federal Election Commission that Mr. Trump had been behaving like a 2024 presidential candidate while avoiding federal oversight by not filing a statement of candidacy.
The group filed a lawsuit in July against the federal commission, seeking to force it to take action against Mr. Trump within 30 days. The lawsuit accused Mr. Trump of trying to disguise his run for the presidency in order to leave voters “in the dark about the contributions and expenditures he has received, which is information they are entitled to.”
The F.E.C. did not take action against Mr. Trump. He eventually announced a formal presidential campaign four months later.
Mr. Trump’s allies could face a similarly tough road in persuading the state ethics commission to act. Mr. DeSantis has appointed five of the nine members of the commission.
Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis were once political allies, but have grown increasingly antagonistic toward each other.
Mr. DeSantis, who has branded himself as one of his party’s most ruthless political brawlers, has so far declined to directly confront Mr. Trump. Instead, he has made thinly veiled contrasts with Mr. Trump, telling crowds that his administration in Tallahassee has been free of leaks and chaos — such as the kind that often plagued the Trump White House — and excoriating the leadership of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of Mr. Trump’s key public health advisers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has grown increasingly aggressive in his attacks on Mr. DeSantis.
At an event in Davenport, Iowa, on Monday, Mr. Trump drew a mix of applause and groans from the crowd as he attacked Mr. DeSantis over attempts to cut ethanol production and said the Florida governor wanted to “decimate” Social Security and Medicare by supporting proposals that would have increased the age to receive benefits.
Mr. Trump scheduled his event three days after Mr. DeSantis made his first introduction to Iowa voters in the same Mississippi River town.