Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has made moves in recent days to distance himself from Donald Trump over the 2020 election as the former president faces charges over his involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
In an interview with NBC News on Monday, DeSantis said “of course” Trump lost in 2020 and that President Biden is the legitimate president.
“Whoever puts their hand on the Bible on Jan. 20 every four years is the winner,” DeSantis said.
The comments came days after Trump pleaded not guilty to charges in the Jan. 6 federal investigation.
When pressed by NBC’s Dasha Burns to give a “yes or no” answer on whether Trump lost, DeSantis responded, “No, of course he lost.”
“Joe Biden’s the president,” he said.
DeSantis went on to point out what he said were issues with the 2020 election, including concerns about the widespread availability of mail-in ballots, state laws that permitted third parties to collect ballots and social media platforms downplaying the story surrounding Hunter Biden’s laptop.
“I think what people in the media and elsewhere, they want to act like somehow this was just like the perfect election. … I don’t think it was a good-run election,” the governor said. “But I also think Republicans didn’t fight back. You’ve got to fight back when that is happening.”
Speaking in Iowa on Friday, the governor that election fraud theories about the 2020 election “did not prove to be true.”
Together, the recent remarks are some of the most aggressive the governor has made regarding Trump since launching his campaign, a development that will encourage those Republicans who have urged the governor to step up his attacks on the front-runner.
“Reluctant Trump primary voters frustrated with the focus on the 2020 campaign may finally have a home,” said Brian Seitchik, a Republican strategist and former Trump campaign staffer. “I have believed for some time that the only way to beat Trump was not to wait for him to combust but aggressively shake his voters loose. Will it work? Who knows.”
“This is Team DeSantis trying to draw Trump into a winner-loser conversation — a clear sore spot for the former president,” Seitchik added.
But some Republicans say they aren’t sure DeSantis’s comments represent a clear shift.
“I’m a little cautious about reading too much into it,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based GOP strategist. “I think he was asked questions by a voter and by a journalist and he gave his answer.”
“I think that going forward if he gets asked these questions again, he can say, ‘I’ve already answered it,’” Sayfie said. “’I’ve got other things to talk about in terms of the future.’”
Trump’s campaign spokesman Steve Cheung was quick to hit back over the comments, saying that the Florida governor “should really stop being Joe Biden’s biggest cheerleader.”
The Florida governor’s comments also come with some political risks. A CNN poll released earlier this month found that 69 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners polled said Biden’s 2020 win was not legitimate. That number is up from 63 percent earlier this year.
And last month, an Associated Press-NORC poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans say they have high confidence that that votes in the 2024 election will be counted accurately.
“What they’re telling you in that poll is that they don’t feel that it was free or fair,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist. “If nearly three-quarters [feel that way], I don’t know how that’s going to help him.”
But data also shows that issues other than the 2020 election take precedent for Republican voters. A Pew Research poll released in June found that 77 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents said that inflation is “a very big problem,” while “moral values,” illegal immigration and the budget deficit were also viewed as top problems for GOP voters.
“An overwhelming majority of Republican voters are not going to base their votes in the 2024 presidential primary based on who they think won the 2020 election,” Sayfie said. “There are other issues that are much more important than that.”
O’Connell said that DeSantis’s remarks are part of his campaign’s recent reset, an effort to gain more traction against Trump in the polls and generate headlines.
Monday’s interview with NBC News is the latest mainstream interview DeSantis has taken part in recently, after sticking with more right-leaning and local outlets following the launch of his campaign in May.
In an email to reporters Monday, DeSantis’s campaign noted that the governor has also spoken to The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, ABC News, CBS News and CNN.
“The DeSantis team is obviously trying to change things up and they realize that time is running out because Trump keeps getting stronger,” O’Connell said.
“In the here and now it’s about the lack of media oxygen,” he said. “That is really what’s dogging his campaign.”