Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Sunday acknowledged that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, days after the former president pleaded not guilty to criminal charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the result.
“Of course he lost,” DeSantis told NBC News when pressed.
“Joe Biden’s the president,” he added.
Though he separated himself from Trump’s lie of a rigged election, DeSantis maintained that the 2020 contest was far from a “perfect election”. That puts him at odds with a group of top security and election officials at the Department of Homeland Security who called the race “the most secure in American history” in November 2020.
“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 blamed everything he considered problems with the 2020 race on Trump, saying the former president “didn’t have control over his own government”.
He took issue, among other things, with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that Trump signed, and the $400 million it provided to the Election Assistance Commission for states “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally” for the 2020 election.
The funds also covered the printing of additional ballots and envelopes for greater use of mail-in ballots.
“But here’s the issue that I think is important for Republican voters to think about: Why did we have all those mail votes? Because of Trump turned the government over to [Anthony] Fauci,” DeSantis told NBC News, in reference to the former chief medical adviser.
While DeSantis was keen on criticising Trump over Covid, he tiptoed around Trump’s criminal cases, claiming the US justice system is “weaponised”.
He told NBC’s Dasha Burns that the GOP’s path to victory in 2024 includes focusing on what he sees as Biden’s failures instead of Trump.
“If, on the other hand, the election is not about January 20, 2025, but January 6, 2021, or what document was left by the toilet at Mar-a-Lago — if it’s a referendum on that, we are going to lose,” DeSantis said.
In addition to the 2020 election case, Trump has been indicted in the Justice Department’s investigation into his handling of classified documents after leaving the White House, and in Manhattan over his role in a hush money payment scheme involving porn star Stormy Daniels.
Trump has denied wrongdoing. He has claimed his latest indictment is politically motivated, aimed at hurting his 2024 chances.
Republicans underperformed in the November 2022 midterm elections due to various factors, including the party’s efforts to restrict or ban abortion following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade.
DeSantis, who recently signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, hasn’t heeded that lesson. Asked if he would veto a nationwide abortion ban if it landed on his desk as president, DeSantis replied: “We will be a pro-life president and we will support pro-life policies.”
DeSantis’ extreme positions are also testing his relationship with donors. Earlier this year, Republican megadonor Thomas Peterffy said he is suspending donations to DeSantis over “his stance on abortion,” among other things.
Meanwhile, Trump’s legal troubles have solidified his place as the GOP front-runner. DeSantis, once a strong second place in the 2024 GOP field, continues struggling.
An average of national polls in the 2024 GOP primary compiled by FiveThirtyEight has DeSantis at 14.3%, trailing Trump by nearly 40 percentage points.
Last month, DeSantis laid off a third of his campaign team to build a leaner political operation.