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Ron DeSantis is weaponizing partisan media — and weakening independent sources of news



Last summer, six days after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suspended Tampa prosecutor Andrew Warren, one of the governor’s top aides drafted a public records request seeking copies of emails from Warren’s time as state attorney for the 13th Circuit.

DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske sent the proposed request to a writer at a newly launched conservative news website — who then submitted it to the State Attorney’s Office in his own name.

It was, records show, just the beginning of a collaboration between the DeSantis administration and The Florida Standard, which would go on to publish a story alleging that Warren might have misused taxpayer resources — a story that DeSantis staffers then promoted to others as if it were an independent piece of journalism.

The episode is a case study in how DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president, has cultivated a network of sympathetic conservative news organizations that he and his strategists use to promote the governor — and attack his opponents.


And DeSantis is building this cheerleading machine even as he uses his powers as governor to weaken legitimate journalism.

Separate records show, for instance, that the DeSantis administration was directly involved in recent legislation that allowed cities, counties, and towns to stop publishing legal notices in local newspapers. Attorneys for the governor are arguing in courts that DeSantis does not always need to comply with Florida’s public-records laws. And DeSantis hinted last week that he wants to make it easier to sue news organizations for libel and defamation — an idea the governor has been quietly working on for at least a year.

The governor’s efforts to prop up supplicant sources of news — while trying to destabilize and delegitimize independent ones — make for a dangerous combination, said Michael Barfield, the director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a watchdog group that supports transparent government and investigative journalism.

“This is what state-run media looks like,” Barfield said. “Russia, China, and Venezuela use it as a tool to control the message. The strategy has far-reaching and negative implications for freedom of the press and democracy. History is full of painful lessons when the government interferes with and manipulates a free and independent press.”

“We’ll put a nail in the coffin”

Ron DeSantis suspended Andrew Warren on August 4, removing an independently elected prosecutor who had vowed not to criminally punish women seeking abortions or doctors providing them.

The following 24 hours were a frantic period for the governor’s press staff, which stoked the story online while fielding media inquiries from around the world. But things began to calm down a bit after the governor’s office arranged to have Susan Lopez — the attorney DeSantis chose to replace Warren — hire one of DeSantis’ former communications directors to handle media for the State Attorney’s Office.

“Fred Piccolo is now doing their comms,” Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’ current communications director, wrote in an August 5 text message to two other staffers in the DeSantis press shop. The text messages were unearthed during a trial over the suspension. “So I’m going to call him and have him get counter stories out there.”

Then Fenske added, “Will’s team can focus on this one, we’ll put a nail in the coffin.”

It’s not clear to whom Fenske was referring when she wrote the name “Will.” Fenske did not respond to a request for comment.

But two days later, a conservative podcaster and social media personality named Will Witt announced the launch of The Florida Standard, a conservative website covering Florida politics.

“The media landscape of today is nothing more than the corrupt propaganda of the ruling class,” Witt wrote in an August 7 post headlined “Welcome to The Florida Standard.”

“We at The Florida Standard are here to change that,” Witt wrote. “Whether it’s in our daily email updates, our breaking news texts, or anything else we do, our commitment will never be to a political party or hidden agendas.”

The Florida Standard took an immediate interest in Andrew Warren. One of the site’s first news pieces was a one-sided story recapping DeSantis’s decision to suspend Warren.

But the publication was about to do more digging. Three days later, on August 10, emails obtained through a public-records request show that Fenske, DeSantis’ communications director, contacted Josh Miller, a writer at the Florida Standard, with a proposed public-records request.

“Here’s a draft example of a records request if helpful!” Fenske wrote.

The proposed request sought emails from the 13th Circuit State Attorney’s Office that included any of several key phrases, such as “Florida Democratic Party,” “American Civil Liberties Union,” and “fair and just prosecutions,” a reference to an advocacy group that Warren had worked with. The request also asked for work-related communications Warren had sent or received from a personal Gmail account.

Fifteen minutes later, Miller submitted the request in his own name, according to separate records obtained from the State Attorney’s Office. Miller copied Fenske’s draft verbatim — right down to repeating a typo in which Fenske had flubbed the acronym for the ACLU by writing “ALCU.”

The Florida Standard ultimately abandoned the request, according to the State Attorney’s Office. Instead, on the morning of August 17 — the same morning Warren announced that he was suing DeSantis on First Amendment grounds — the publication phoned in a much narrower records request. The more targeted request sought copies of press releases issued by the State Attorney’s Office about work that Warren, a Democrat, had done in conjunction with a task force created by the Florida Democratic Party.

The State Attorney’s Office jumped on it: Records show the agency emailed three press releases to Miller, the Florida Standard writer, at 9:32 that morning.

Eight minutes later, according to a timestamp, The Florida Standard published a story under the headline “Andrew Warren Allegedly Used Taxpayer Money for Activist Agenda.” The story said Warren used his office to “liaise” with the Florida Democratic Party, and that he spent taxpayer money on “events related to his activism.”

The Florida Standard’s story cited a “high-level source in the State Attorney’s Office,” as well as records that The Florida Standard said it had obtained via public-records requests — including the press releases that the State Attorney’s Office had emailed over minutes earlier.

But records show that The Florida Standard may have had those press releases even before the State Attorney’s Office sent them.

As part of its story, the publication included a link to a PDF of its documents — the three press releases issued by the State Attorney’s Office, plus a pair of releases from the Florida Democratic Party and a news story from another publication. The metadata on that PDF indicates that it was created by a scanner in the Governor’s Office — before the State Attorney’s Office sent the press releases to the Florida Standard.

Neither Witt, The Florida Standard’s editor-in-chief, nor Miller, the writer of the Andrew Warren story, responded to a request for comment.

As soon as The Florida Standard’s story was published, Fenske began sending it to other reporters, who were flooding the governor’s office with requests for comment in response to Warren’s First Amendment lawsuit.

Records from the governor’s office show Fenske sent the piece to at least five other news outlets — television stations in Tampa and Tallahassee, plus Fox News, the Washington Times and the Daily Mail. She never betrayed a hint that the governor’s office helped orchestrate the story.

“For background, saw this story earlier this morning and thought it might be of interest to you,” Fenske wrote in an email to Forrest Saunders, a television reporter in Tallahassee who had asked the governor’s press office for a response to Warren’s lawsuit.

Weaponizing the “friendlys”

It’s been well-documented how deliberately DeSantis has cultivated an ecosystem of right-wing writers, social-media influencers and other marketers as he prepares for a possible Republican primary showdown against former President Donald Trump.

In a lengthy profile last year, The New Yorker detailed the governor’s staff assiduously courting producers at Fox News. Semafor reported in December that DeSantis is “building his own media,” citing his work with outlets like The Florida Standard. The Daily Beast reported last month that DeSantis’s team has been recruiting “a secret Twitter army of far-right influencers.”

Records from the governor’s office show his press staff has separate distribution lists of conservative outlets whom it urges to do everything from writing mundane stories about Florida tourism numbers to pushing back against critical coverage in mainstream outlets like The Miami Herald. Staffers in the governor’s press office have referred to them as “friendlys,” according to text messages from the Andrew Warren litigation.

But the Warren attack reveals how the governor weaponizes this network, too.

DeSantis also seems particularly keen on establishing The Florida Standard as a go-to place for Florida political news. The day after the site formally launched, DeSantis gave a 20-minute interview to Witt, The Florida Standard editor-in-chief. “Good luck to you,” DeSantis said at the end of the cozy sit-down inside the Governor’s Mansion. “Welcome to Florida.”

In late August of last year, the governor’s press office asked The Florida Standard to interview DeSantis’ “chief resilience officer.” The publication obliged, and produced a story promoting DeSantis administration grants that help harden coastal areas against rising seas.

And last fall, when The Florida Standard published a list of the state’s “most influential lobbyists,” more than half a dozen DeSantis office and campaign staffers promoted it on social media.


DeSantis is not, of course, the first Florida politician to leak materials to favored reporters or give access to supportive publications. But part of what makes DeSantis different is how he has paired his efforts to elevate partisan media with public policies meant to destabilize independent media.

This goes far beyond the “cut them off” strategy that former DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw once boasted about.

For instance, for years, Florida had a law on the books that required local governments to buy advertisements in area newspapers to alert the public of impending government actions — if, say, a city commission was going to raise property taxes or rezone farmland for a subdivision. These legal notices became an important source of revenue for newspapers, particularly as other types of advertising, like classifieds, shriveled.

Some Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee tried for years to cut newspapers out of the legal notice process and allow governments to publish them on other websites instead. But the effort always failed, amid intense lobbying by the newspaper industry.

But then DeSantis got involved. Records show the DeSantis administration personally pushed legislation that passed last year allowing local governments to stop publishing legal notices in newspapers. The law is now reverberating across the industry; Sarasota County commissioners announced just last month that they would stop publishing many legal notices in papers like the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

DeSantis relished signing this bill. Emails show his press staff pitched stories to conservative outlets about how the governor eliminated “a state-mandated subsidy to prop up a dying industry.”

DeSantis is not done. Just this week, the governor hosted a media event where he attacked “legacy media” that engages in “partisan activism” and suggested that he might lobby the Florida Legislature to pass a law this session making it easier for people to sue news organizations on claims of libel or defamation. It’s an idea that DeSantis has been working on since at least late 2021.

The Florida governor and likely presidential candidate made the comments while sitting at a mock TV anchor desk, in front of a backdrop emblazoned with the word “Truth.”

Jason Garcia is a longtime business and government reporter in Florida. He previously worked for the Orlando Sentinel and Florida Trend magazine. This piece is republished from his newsletter, “Seeking Rents,” which examines the ways businesses influence public policy across the state. Subscribe here.


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Post-Trump Canada-U.S. relationship needed work: Ambassador



Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman says the country’s relationship with its American counterparts required rebuilding after the Trump administration.

On CTV’s Power Play Wednesday, host Vassy Kapelos asked Hillman if she agreed with a characterization that the relationship needed to be rebuilt.

“Yes, I do, in some respects I think it did require rebuilding,” she answered.

Her comments followed remarks from White House Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby Wednesday afternoon.


“In the first year of this administration we focused on rebuilding that bilateral relationship,” Kirby said in a White House briefing.

Hillman told Kapelos the federal government was able to find common successes with the Trump administration in the early days of the pandemic and in NAFTA negotiations.

“But it wasn’t an administration that was that interested working with allies to solve certain kind of problems,” Hillman said. She highlighted climate change and NATO as some of those problems.

Hillman’s remarks on the Canada-U.S. relationship comes ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Canada Thursday evening and Friday.

Hillman discusses President Biden’s visit in the video at the top of this article.


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Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford to testify at committee probing Chinese government interference



Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff has agreed to testify before one of the committees investigating the extent of the Chinese government’s interference in Canada’s elections — and what the Liberal government knew about it.

“While there are serious constraints on what can be said in public about sensitive intelligence matters, in an effort to make Parliament work, [Katie] Telford has agreed to appear at the procedure and House affairs committee as part of their study,” says a Tuesday statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The decision clears a logjam at the procedure and House affairs committee (PROC), where Liberal MPs have been filibustering over the past two weeks to stall a vote on calling Telford to appear.

The committee resumed Tuesday morning and voted to call Telford to appear for two hours between April 3 and April 14.



Katie Telford is ‘a critical witness’ on election interference: Conservative MP


St-Albert Edmonton Conservative MP Michael Cooper introduced a motion to force the prime minister’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford to testify at committee on election interference.

Committee member and Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who first floated the motion, said that while Liberal MPs should answer for their actions in obstructing the committee, he’s pleased with Tuesday’s decision.

“It’s critical that she testify. She’s the second most powerful person in this government, arguably. But not only that, she played an integral role in the 2019 and 2021 election campaigns on behalf of the Liberal Party,” he said.

“She is a critical witness to get to the heart of the scandal, which is what did the prime minister know, when did he know about it and what did he do or fail to do about Beijing’s interference in our elections?”

Liberal MP Greg Fergus said he wasn’t willing to call her to testify, but Telford volunteered.

“It allows us to move on to other business,” he said. “The tradition is not to have political staff come before committees. It should be ministers who are really responsible for this. It makes a lot of sense. It’s been a long-standing tradition of the House and one that should be broken with great hesitation.”

A man with brown hair, wearing a dark overcoat, white shirt and blue tie, steps off an elevator.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau steps off the elevator as he arrives on Parliament Hill, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The approved motion also invites the national campaign directors for the Liberal and Conservative parties during the 2019 and 2021 federal election campaigns to testify. It extends the invitation to Jenni Byrne, adviser to Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, and Tauscha Michaud, chief of staff to former leader Erin O’Toole.

Public and political interest in foreign election interference has intensified since the Globe and Mail alleged that China tried to ensure that the Liberals won a minority government in the last general election. The newspaper also published reports saying Beijing worked to defeat Conservative candidates who were critical of China.

Back in the fall, Global News reported that intelligence officials warned Trudeau that China’s consulate in Toronto floated cash to at least 11 federal election candidates “and numerous Beijing operatives” who worked as campaign staffers.

Trudeau has said repeatedly he was never briefed about federal candidates receiving money from China.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) calls foreign interference activities by the Chinese government the “greatest strategic threat to national security.”

An independent panel tasked with overseeing the 2021 election did detect attempts at interference but concluded that foreign meddling did not affect the outcome.

Conservative motion fails in House

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took credit for Telford’s decision to appear on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Singh said his party would back the Conservatives in passing a motion compelling her to appear before another parliamentary committee — the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics — if the government didn’t stop filibustering in committee. The PMO announced Telford’s appearance not long after.

“I forced the government and I made it really clear today they had a choice. They could stop the obstruction in committee, allow the witness to testify or we would support the motion,” Singh told reporters Tuesday. His party has a confidence-and-supply agreement with Trudeau’s Liberal minority government.

New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh rises during Question Period, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in Ottawa.
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh rises during Question Period, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Conservative motion was defeated in the House of Commons Tuesday by a vote of 177 to 145.

NDP MPs voted on the side of the Liberals. They were booed by the Conservative bench.

Speaking to journalists after the vote, Conservative MP Andrew Scheer took a swing at Singh.

“I’ve served with several NDP leaders. I served in the house with Jack Layton, Ed Broadbent, Alexa McDonough and Thomas Mulcair. I’ve never seen an NDP leader like this, selling out longstanding principles that that party used to stand for, in exchange for who knows what,” he said.

The former Conservative leader went on to lambaste the government for staging what he called a “theatrical display” at committee before climbing down and agreeing to let Telford testify.

“Now the prime minister is expecting, Justin Trudeau is expecting a gold star for exhausting every attempt to delay and block Ms. Telford from testifying,” he said.

“None of this takes away from the urgent need for a full independent public inquiry.”

Singh said he’ll also still push for a public inquiry into the allegations of election interference.

“I’ve said clearly, both publicly and privately, that … we need a public inquiry and we need questions answered in the meantime,” said Singh,

“Absent a public inquiry process, the only process that we have is the committee work.”


Conservatives want a ‘partisan show’ in committee, says minister


“The Conservatives have wanted to vandalize committees,” said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. “Many of the questions that they pretend they want to ask Ms. Telford are protected by national security confidences.”

The Liberals floated making the vote on the Telford motion a confidence matter, but Trudeau shut that down — pushing off speculation about an early election for the time being.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s Office also released the mandate for former governor general David Johnston‘s position as independent special rapporteur on foreign interference.

The terms of reference say Johnston will report regularly to the prime minister and must make a decision on whether the government should call a public inquiry by May 23, 2023. The PMO says the prime minister expects Johnston to complete his review by Oct. 31, 2023.

The Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois have pushed back against Johnston’s appointment, arguing that he is too closely linked with the prime minister.

Trudeau has shot back by accusing Poilievre of attacking Canada’s “institutions with a flamethrower.”


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Trudeau retreats, and retreat is his best political strategy



Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question from the opposition during Question Period, March 21, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau retreated on Tuesday so that his chief of staff, Katie Telford, will now testify before a parliamentary committee. But it turns out retreat is a good plan for his Liberals.

Despite the chatter, Mr. Trudeau was never going to trigger an election simply to stop Ms. Telford from testifying. That would be a nutty political calculation.

The Liberals had already spent a lot of political capital blocking the opposition demands for Ms. Telford to testify, filibustering at the committee and taking a beating from commentators and painting themselves into a corner.

Retreat, on the other hand, provided some technical political advantages.


Ms. Telford’s appearance at the procedure and House affairs committee, when it comes, could still be tricky, though she won’t be telling all about the PM’s intelligence briefings on Chinese interference in Canadian elections.

But it was getting harder and harder to avoid ever since the NDP, the Liberals’ parliamentary allies in a confidence and supply agreement, broke with the Liberals and supported the opposition demand to have Ms. Telford testify.

The Conservatives had presented a motion in the House of Commons demanding she appear that was coming to a vote Tuesday night.

But once the Liberals conceded, and Mr. Trudeau announced that Ms. Telford would testify, the NDP voted against that motion. And the Liberals avoided umpteen hours of hearings including testimony from 30 cabinet ministers, officials and political party representatives.

Mr. Trudeau’s opponents can crow that he blinked – and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said he had flip-flopped after weeks of pressure – but retreat was good for the Liberals.

There will still be the spectacle of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff refusing to reveal much about what the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told the PM about Beijing’s efforts to influence Canada’s elections in 2019 and 2021. Mr. Trudeau told reporters that there are lot of things about intelligence that Ms. Telford, much like officials who have previously testified, won’t be able to say in public.

The Conservatives know that. Perhaps what they really want to ask Ms. Telford – also a key figure in Liberal election campaigns – is whether CSIS warned campaign staffers that they suspected Liberal candidates might be compromised by ties to Beijing. (Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford answered a similar question on Tuesday by telling reporters that CSIS briefed his chief of staff about MPP Vincent Ke last fall, but only in vague terms.)

But at this point, the Liberals are almost hoping that the Conservatives will have their knives out for Ms. Telford when she testifies.

Mr. Trudeau keeps saying that Canadians don’t want to see Chinese interference become a partisan issue. The Liberals accuse the Conservatives of turning the issue into a political circus, but the truth is they hope the hearings will look like one.

At any rate, Ms. Telford was always going to end up having to testify, at least to avoid something worse. The Liberals suffered damage in a vain attempt to prevent it. Mr. Trudeau should learn a lesson about the value of retreat.

While the opposition parties howled for an inquiry, Mr. Trudeau named former governor-general David Johnston as a “special rapporteur” – prompting both the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois to argue that Mr. Johnston’s friendship with the Trudeau family makes him unfit for the role.

But now the timeline that Mr. Trudeau has given to his “special rapporteur” presents the opportunity for another retreat. Mr. Johnston has six months to issue his final recommendations but a surprisingly short time, until May 23, to come up with recommendations on whether there should be another process – such as an inquiry.

You would think that in that brief period, Mr. Johnston can only look around at all the perplexing questions hanging over the Canadian polity, and realize he has little choice but to recommend some step that will be seen as providing a truly independent review that offers some transparent answers.

Mr. Trudeau should hope so. That’s the place where all of this has to go. The Prime Minister would be better off backing out of the corner he is in quickly, and getting to that place with less damage.


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