The San Juan Daily Star
DeSantis burnishes tough-on-crime image to run in ’24 and take on Trump
By Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has spent months shoring up a tough-on-crime image as he weighs a run for the White House, calling for stronger penalties against drug traffickers and using $5,000 bonuses to bolster law-enforcement recruitment to his state.
DeSantis and his allies plan to use that image to draw a contrast with the Republican front-runner in the 2024 race, former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis and his backers see the signature criminal-justice law enacted by Trump in 2018 as an area of weakness with his base, and DeSantis has indicated that he would highlight it when the two men tussle for the Republican nomination, according to three people with knowledge of DeSantis’ thinking. That law, known as the First Step Act, reduced the sentences for thousands of prisoners.
DeSantis has yet to officially announce his candidacy, but he has been quietly staffing a presidential campaign, and his allies have been building up a super PAC. Since at least his reelection in November, DeSantis has privately suggested that Trump’s record on crime is one of several policy issues on which Trump is vulnerable to attacks from the right.
One potentially complicating factor for DeSantis: He voted for the initial House version of the First Step Act in May 2018, while still a congressman. He resigned his seat in September 2018 after winning the Republican primary for governor, and was not in the House to vote for the more expansive version of the sentencing reform bill that ultimately passed into law in December 2018.
Other vulnerabilities, in the view of DeSantis and some of his allies, include Trump’s deference to Dr. Anthony Fauci as the nation’s top infectious disease expert during his initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.
DeSantis has already pushed that point publicly, contrasting his record on the pandemic with that of Trump. He recently told interviewer Piers Morgan that he would have fired Fauci. In the early days of the pandemic, however, DeSantis did not call for Trump to do so.
DeSantis has said nothing publicly to telegraph that he intends to directly hit Trump as soft on crime. Yet for months, he has been privately gearing up for such a contrast, whether it comes from him or his allies.
Public safety was an issue in DeSantis’ 2022 campaign, as it was for a number of Republicans. A person familiar with DeSantis’ thinking, who was granted anonymity because the person was not allowed to discuss private deliberations, said the governor viewed public safety as encompassing other policy matters, such as immigration.
In January, DeSantis announced a series of legislative measures for the coming session in Florida, which, among other actions, would toughen penalties against drug traffickers.
“Other states endanger their citizens by making it easier to put criminals back on the street. Here, in Florida, we will continue to support and enact policies to protect our communities and keep Floridians safe,” DeSantis said in a statement at the time. “Florida will remain the law-and-order state.”
He has also instituted a program to pay $5,000 bonuses to recruit new Florida law enforcement officers and has played up his success in inducing hundreds to relocate to Florida from other states, such as New York and California. And he made a mini-tour last month visiting law enforcement offices in major cities in Democratic-leaning states.
Trump is aware of his vulnerability on the crime issue because of his record as president, according to people close to him. Shortly after leaving office he began trying to inoculate himself against attacks by promising an uncompromising law-and-order agenda, with especially harsh treatment of drug dealers.
As president, following the advice of his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, in December 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act, which resulted in more than 3,000 inmates being released early from federal prison.
A Republican official who is not affiliated with DeSantis and who has closely tracked criminal recidivism among people released from prison because of the First Step Act, said that the volume of those releases would provide fodder for attack ads against Trump.
On Wednesday, Pedro L. Gonzalez, a conservative with a large online following who often attacks Trump from the right and defends DeSantis, tweeted that the man charged with assaulting a U.S. Senate staff member over the weekend was “released from prison thanks to Trump’s First Step Act” and linked to a Fox News story about the case.
Many of those released under the First Step Act had been imprisoned for selling drugs — a crime that Trump now says publicly that he wants to punish with the death penalty because of the destruction wrought by illegal drugs.
Trump, early on as president, mused admiringly in private about how dictators like Xi Jinping of China and former President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines executed drug dealers. At other times, he asked top officials whether it was feasible to shoot in the legs migrants who were illegally crossing the border.
But for most of his term, Trump suppressed this instinct publicly. He came to believe that a more compassionate criminal justice policy would help him with African American voters, according to people familiar with his thinking.
Because of this — and a competition in 2020 over spending with billionaire candidate Mike Bloomberg — the Trump campaign paid millions of dollars to run a Super Bowl commercial highlighting his commutation of the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a Black woman convicted of leading a multimillion-dollar drug trafficking ring. Trump and his team hailed the First Step Act as a historic bipartisan achievement.
“Did it for African Americans. Nobody else could have gotten it done,” Trump wrote in response to a reporter’s question in 2022, adding, “Got zero credit.” The word “zero” was underlined for emphasis.
But in June 2020, as Americans massed on the streets to protest the police killing of George Floyd, Trump told his aides privately, according to Axios, that it was a mistake to have listened to Kushner.
In his final six months in office, Trump was erratic in his criminal justice policies. He went on a historic federal execution spree. But he also went on a pardon spree — handing out many dubious pardons, including one to a drug smuggler with a history of violence, through a process heavily influenced by Kushner.
And by the time Trump was plainly looking for a future in politics again in 2021, he began talking publicly about executing drug dealers.