DeSantis bluntly acknowledges Trump’s 2020 defeat: ‘Of course he lost’
By Nicholas Nehamas and Alexandra Berzon
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida clearly stated in a recent interview that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, diverging from the orthodoxy of most Republican voters as the former president’s struggling GOP rivals test out new lines of attack against him.
“Of course he lost,” DeSantis said in an interview with NBC News published Monday. “Joe Biden’s the president.”
DeSantis’ remarks — his first blunt acknowledgment of the 2020 outcome after three years of hedging — were the latest sign that Trump’s rivals are seeking to use his growing legal troubles against him. In the days since Trump was indicted on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, both DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence have more sharply broken from the former president over his actions leading up to the Capitol riot.
The criticism has been subtle. Neither candidate has openly attacked Trump or suggested the charges are warranted. In his latest comments, DeSantis continued to suggest that the election had problems, calling it not “perfect.” But both appear to be seeking ways to use the indictment to press on the former president’s weaknesses and to build a case for themselves that even Trump supporters will hear.
DeSantis has also been trying to reset his struggling campaign, and his donors have pushed him to moderate his positions to appeal to a broader audience.
First, though, DeSantis must find a way through the Republican primary contest, in which Trump holds a dominant polling lead. And DeSantis’ latest remarks, while accurate, may put him at odds with much of the Republican base. Although the 2020 election was widely found to have been secure, roughly 70% of Republican voters say that Biden’s victory was not legitimate, according to a CNN poll conducted last month.
In a statement, Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, said that “Ron DeSantis should really stop being Joe Biden’s biggest cheerleader.”
So far, of the most prominent candidates, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Pence have spoken out most strongly against Trump. Christie is running on an explicitly anti-Trump platform. Pence has said that Trump deserves the “presumption of innocence” but has also said he would testify in the former president’s trial over Jan. 6, 2021, if required to do so.
“The American people deserve to know that President Trump asked me to put him over my oath to the Constitution, but I kept my oath and I always will,” Pence told CNN in an interview that aired Sunday. “And I’m running for president in part because I think anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.”
But neither argument appears to be resonating with Republican voters. Christie is polling at about 2% in national surveys, and Pence has not qualified for the first Republican debate this month. At a dinner for the Republican Party of Iowa late last month, the audience booed former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a long-shot candidate, after he accused the former president of “running to stay out of prison.”
In the NBC interview, DeSantis still said he saw problems with how the 2020 election was conducted. He cited the widespread use of mail-in ballots, private donations to election administrators from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and efforts by social media companies to limit the spread of a report about Hunter Biden’s laptop.
“I don’t think it was a good-run election,” DeSantis said. “But I also think Republicans didn’t fight back. You’ve got to fight back when that is happening.”
DeSantis had acknowledged Friday that the former president’s false conspiracy theories about a rigged 2020 election were “unsubstantiated.”
In the run-up to last year’s midterms, DeSantis campaigned for vociferous election deniers, including Doug Mastriano, who ran for governor in Pennsylvania, and Kari Lake, who did so in Arizona.
Both lost, as did all of their most prominent counterparts, showing that while election denial can work in Republican primaries, it does not play as well in general elections in battleground states. Sixty percent of independent voters nationwide believe Biden won the 2020 election, the CNN poll found — an ominous sign for Republicans who embrace election denialism going into 2024.
For Trump’s hard-line supporters, DeSantis’ new comments on the 2020 election were seen as disqualifying.
“Any politician that says that Donald Trump lost that election and Biden really won is done,” Mike Lindell, the pillow company founder who has been a vocal promoter of conspiracy theories about election machines, said in an interview Monday with The New York Times. “Their campaign is basically over when they make a comment like that.”
DeSantis’ shift, however, serves to buttress his overall argument against Trump, namely that under Trump’s leadership, Republicans have performed poorly in three elections in a row.
And it could help assuage the fears of some of DeSantis’ big-money donors. Robert Bigelow, who contributed more than $20 million to a super PAC backing DeSantis, told Reuters last week that he would not give more money unless DeSantis adopted a more moderate approach. The governor’s campaign is experiencing a fundraising shortfall and laid off more than one-third of its staff last month.
As part of a “reboot” of his campaign, DeSantis has moved from the safe zone of speaking only with conservative pundits and opinion hosts at Fox News to greater access for mainstream news outlets, including interviews with CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC and The Wall Street Journal. He has also taken far more questions from reporters on the campaign trail.
He has used those platforms to dig at Trump for his age, his failure to “drain the swamp” during his term in office, and the “culture of losing” that DeSantis says has overtaken the Republican Party under Trump.
But he has also consistently defended Trump over the criminal charges, saying they represent the “weaponization” of federal government against a political rival of Biden. Taken together, DeSantis’ comments on the former president suggest he is inching, rather than running, toward more direct confrontation with Trump. The governor never mentions Trump by name in his stump speech to voters, preferring to engage on the topic only when asked by attendees at his campaign events or by reporters.