Since he formally announced his bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has learned just how strong former president Donald Trump’s grip is on his party. DeSantis has been unable to get any traction for his candidacy, a failure often attributed to his own missteps and personal interactions. It is probably also appropriate to attribute much of the blame to Trump’s omnipresence in his party’s politics, shaping discussions and policy issues, even if only indirectly.
So, in an interview that will air on “NBC Nightly News” on Monday, DeSantis tried another tack, one that, at least in broad strokes, runs directly against a dominant Trump narrative. Yes, Trump lost the 2020 election — but only because Trump let it be rigged against himself.
Before we parse what DeSantis said, it’s useful to establish some context. Since even before the 2020 election ended, Trump was stoking doubt about the reliability of its outcome, without question primarily because he understood that he was likely to lose. There’s little need to walk through Trump’s claims at this point; one can simply look at Trump’s most recent criminal indictment to understand what happened.
But this is not a dormant issue for Trump. He continues to claim his loss was a result of the election being stolen through fraud or rigged by vaguer, less-easily-debunked mechanisms.
Nor is it an argument that has been abandoned by Republican voters. Recent CNN-SSRS polling shows that more than two-thirds of Republicans continue to think that Biden was not legitimately elected three years ago.
This is the conundrum: DeSantis explicitly rejecting Trump’s claims about the sanctity of the election would meet resistance from the voters to whom he’s trying to appeal, but not rejecting those claims both fails to differentiate himself from his opponent and, more importantly, undercuts his argument that Trump can’t win in 2024.
So DeSantis sat down with NBC News’s Dasha Burns and tried to thread that needle.
“Whoever puts their hand on the Bible on Jan. 20 every four years is the winner,” DeSantis said. Then he immediately pivoted to trying to rationalize why President Biden had his hand on that Bible, from criticizing the expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic to “the FBI … working with Facebook and these other tech companies to censor the Hunter Biden story” — that is, the New York Post story about a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son. He mentioned other things, too, the sort of chatter that’s common among Republicans (such as “Zuckerbucks”).
We should point out that DeSantis didn’t try to defend the idea that mail-in ballots reduced the security of the election; there’s no evidence that there was any significant illegal voting using mail ballots.
Nor did he offer any evidence that the FBI had worked with tech companies to censor the story (a frequent claim that has not been validated) or that this somehow affected the election results (which similarly has not been shown). This is very much to the point: DeSantis is presenting those claims as inherently valid, in part because they are broadly accepted by the Republican base.
There was another reason, too, as he made obvious when he unveiled his new pivot.
“But here’s the issue that I think is important for Republican voters to think about,” he told Burns. “Why did we have all those mail votes? Because … Trump turned the government over to [Anthony S.] Fauci! They embraced lockdowns. They did the Cares Act, which funded mail-in ballots across the country. Donald Trump signed that bill that funded the mail ballots that all the Republicans have been so concerned about.”
“And also with the censorship of the Hunter Biden,” he continued. “That was Donald Trump’s FBI that was working with that. He didn’t have control over his own government.”
DeSantis needs people to think those issues were determinative because that makes Trump’s loss Trump’s fault.
The comment about Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease doctor, is an effort by DeSantis to loop his criticism of Trump back into the issue of how elected officials responded to the pandemic — something that’s been central to DeSantis’s pitch to voters for years.
Beyond the unsupported insinuation that those ballots constituted an unfair rigging of the election, though, it’s also worth noting that DeSantis’s rhetoric is itself a bit iffy.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (Cares Act) that Trump signed in early 2020 didn’t simply give states money for mail-in ballots. It was a broad package of proposals meant to address the pandemic, including creating a pool of money to bolster election systems at the state level.
That pool of money was constrained to certain uses but was not explicitly centered on using mail ballots. For Trump to veto legislation that included a host of pandemic backstops solely because one element might be used for mail ballots would have been bizarre.
What’s more, Florida sought and received that funding. In May 2020, county-level election supervisors sent a letter to DeSantis asking him to take advantage of the federal money. A few days later, Florida’s secretary of state confirmed to the federal government that the state would use the funds. The money was used, in many places, to assist with the costs associated with expanded mail-in balloting.
In other words, DeSantis did the same thing as Trump: approved funding that was used for mail ballots.
“I don’t think it was, it was a good-run election,” DeSantis told Burns. “But I also think Republicans didn’t fight back. You’ve got to fight back when that is happening. And you shouldn’t have provided all the money to fund the mail-in ballots.”
DeSantis also flatly told Burns that “of course” Trump lost in 2020, an unusually flat rejection of Trump’s insistence about the outcome. It’s unusual because, in the context of the Republican electorate, it’s also fraught.
Since late 2020, some Trump allies have tried the broader argument made by DeSantis, that there wasn’t a lot of fraud but that the system was leveraged against the sitting president. It was a way to appeal to a GOP base primed to think the election was stolen while retaining more defensibility. DeSantis is simply extending that claim to blame Trump for how it was rigged.
But this idea that Trump actually lost is not accepted by a lot of Republicans. More than a third, for example, think that there is solid evidence that the election was not legitimate, a viewpoint that has ticked upward in recent months. This would appear to largely reflect the portion of the GOP base that thinks there was literal, rampant fraud — which there wasn’t.
It seems unlikely, then, that DeSantis’s effort to blame Trump’s loss on Trump’s decisions is likely to generate the traction he’s seeking.