Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ventured outside the conservative media sphere for an interview with CNN on Tuesday, portraying himself as a still-strong presidential candidate at a fraught moment for his campaign.
With six months remaining before the first contest of the Republican primary, DeSantis changed tack by joining CNN’s Jake Tapper for an afternoon interview — a departure from precedent for the candidate, who in March called the mainstream media “very, very untrustworthy.” DeSantis granted Tapper a 15-minute interview in South Carolina, where he is trying to reassert himself on the campaign trail by becoming the first candidate to file presidential paperwork in the early-primary state.
“A lot of people view me as a threat,” DeSantis said. “I think the left views me as a threat because they think I will beat Biden and deliver on all of this stuff, and of course people who have their allegiances on the Republican side have gone after me. But the reality is, this is a state-by-state process.”
Trump has maintained a comfortable polling lead over DeSantis, even as he has faced multiple indictments over the course of the primary cycle. The former president said on Tuesday that he expected to be indicted a third time this year, announcing that he had received a “target letter” from special counsel Jack Smith’s Jan. 6 investigators.
While DeSantis said earlier Tuesday that Trump “should have come out more forcefully” against the siege on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, he stopped short of condemning the president outright, instead denigrating what he saw as an effort to criminalize political disagreements. DeSantis did not stray from this message during his interview with Tapper later in the day.
“This country is going down the road of criminalizing political differences, and I think that is wrong,” DeSantis replied when Tapper asked him about Trump’s target letter. “I don’t think it serves us good to have a presidential election focused on what happened four years ago in January. So I want to focus on looking forward. I don’t want to look back. I hope he doesn’t get charged. I don’t think it’ll be good for the country.”
DeSantis also defended himself against concerns about electability amid his recently flagging fundraising efforts. His campaign drew $20 million in the second quarter of the year, setting aside $3 million of those funds for the general election — and only about 15 percent of donations came from small donors. On top of that, the campaign spent over $1 million on staffers in the second quarter. DeSantis’ camp shed staff in the past week, discharging several aides involved in event planning for the campaign.
But while DeSantis’ appearance on CNN — his first since he declared his candidacy — marks a new step for the governor, his interview with Tapper did not betray any major shifts in campaign strategy or messaging as he struggles to gain ground against Trump. DeSantis, who has pitched himself as a more conservative alternative to the former president, voiced familiar talking points in opposition to what he called “the woke-mind virus.”
“Not everyone really even knows what wokeness is,” DeSantis said, when asked about a sweeping plan he announced earlier Tuesday to return the military to its “core mission.” “I mean, I’ve defined it, but a lot of people who rail against wokeness can’t even define it.”
DeSantis defended his military plan, which would ban transgender people from serving and rid the military of measures on diversity, equity and inclusion. The candidate also stressed that he would be a “pro-life president” if elected, but would not say whether he would support enacting a national six-week ban on abortion.