After months of largely avoiding criticizing former President Donald Trump directly, Gov. Ron DeSantis unloaded Thursday during a media blitz following his entry in the presidential race, slamming Trump's COVID-19 response and criticizing his statements on guns and abortion.
The comments were some of DeSantis' most pointed when it comes to Trump and highlight his strategy of trying to run to the right of Trump and portray himself as more conservative.
"It seems like he's running to the left and I have always been somebody that's just been moored in conservative principles," DeSantis told radio host Matt Murphy. "So these will be interesting debates to have, but I can tell you, you don't win nationally by moving to the left, you win nationally by standing for bold policy. We showed that in Florida. I never watered down anything I did."
DeSantis said Trump has changed since he first ran for president.
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“I don’t know what happened to Donald Trump; this is a different guy today than when he was running in 2015 and 2016 and I think the direction that he’s going with his campaign is the wrong direction," DeSantis said.
DeSantis mostly avoided directly criticizing Trump in the run up to his presidential announcement, apparently out of concerns about angering GOP voters who view Trump favorably. Now that he's an official candidate, it will be more difficult for DeSantis to avoid taking on Trump.
Murphy prodded DeSantis about Trump. The governor drew a contrast with the former president on ideological concerns, indicating his Trump strategy may be to target policy over personal issues.
“For me it’s not about personalities, when Donald Trump was standing for things I believed in I supported him…," DeSantis said. "For me it’s substantive driven, but when there’s substantive disagreements I’m going to stand for what’s right.”
DeSantis touched on issues such as abortion and immigration, arguing his views are more conservative than Trump.
The abortion issue has become a major flashpoint. Trump recently questioned a bill DeSantis signed that outlaws abortion in Florida when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, or around six weeks of pregnancy
"He signed six weeks, and many people within the pro-life movement feel that that was too harsh," Trump told the Messenger website, while declining to say whether he personally supports or opposes the legislation.
DeSantis told Murphy that Trump is "opposed to Florida's fetal heartbeat bill."
“At the end of the day... he is going left on a lot of the fiscal, he’s going left on culture, he’s even sided with Disney against me," DeSantis said.
The dustup between DeSantis and Disney has draw considerable attention, with Trump weighing in to argue that the dispute “is all so unnecessary, a political STUNT!”
DeSantis criticized Trump's COVID-19 response in another interview.
"When he turned the country over to Fauci in March of 2020 that destroyed millions of people's lives," DeSantis said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who played a key role role in the pandemic response and has since become widely reviled by many conservatives.
DeSantis also was interviewed by former National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch in which she asked him about "the idea of taking the guns first and going through due process second."
Trump said in 2018 during a meeting with lawmakers in response the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that authorities should “take the guns first, go through due process second."
"That's unconstitutional," DeSantis told Loesch. "It violates the Second Amendment, but I think even more important it violates the Fifth Amendment because they can't take anything from you without due process. It's not just firearms."
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Yet even as he criticized Trump Thursday, DeSantis also implied that − should he win the presidency − he might pardon Trump if he is charged with a crime related to the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
DeSantis was asked on The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show about pardoning individuals charged with crimes related to Jan. 6.
DeSantis said the Department of Justice and FBI have been "weaponized."
"We see that in a variety of contexts, some of which you mentioned," DeSantis said. "Some of it is the FBI going after parents going to school board meetings, some of it's how they treat a pro-life demonstrator, how they don't go after people that are attacking pro-lifers."
DeSantis added that: “On Day 1 I will have folks that will get together and look at all these cases who people are victims of weaponization or political targeting and will be aggressive in issuing pardons."
The interviewer asked DeSantis if he also would consider pardoning Trump, should Trump be charged with a crime related to Jan. 6.
"I would say an example of disfavored treatment based on politics or weaponization would be included in that review no matter how small or how big," DeSantis responded.
While DeSantis was hitting Trump on policy issues Thursday, the former president put out a video where he talks directly to the camera and mocks DeSantis by intentionally misstating his first name, followed by his favored nickname, “Rob DeSanctimonious.”
“Rob DeSanctimonious and his poll numbers are dropping like a rock…,” Trump said. “The question: Is Rob just young, inexperienced and naïve or, more troubling, is he a fool who has no idea what he’s doing? We already have one of those in office, we don’t need another one.”
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Ron DeSantis slams Donald Trump after announcing presidential campaign