As campaign struggles, Ron DeSantis makes return to mainstream media

The GOP candidate and main Trump rival has taken a hostile approach to traditional media in recent years, but used a softer approach during an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in West Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday.Meg Kinnard / AP

Ron DeSatis was on his best behavior Tuesday.

The Florida governor made his return to mainstream media, an institution he has trashed and ignored for five years, to do a 15-minute interview with CNN's Jake Tapper. It was not marked by the overly aggressive name-calling or overt annoyance that has defined DeSantis’ relationship with traditional media over the past few years.

He even engaged in friendly banter, recalling a CNN poll from 2018 that showed him losing the gubernatorial race that he ended up winning.

“You didn’t have anything to do with it,” DeSantis joked with Tapper.

The back and forth with a well-known journalist outside conservative circles was a vastly different look for DeSantis. As governor, he pushed for state laws to eliminate legal protections for reporters, elevated communications staffers who attack them publicly, and created an insular right-wing media bubble that allowed him to bypass traditional press outlets.

But as his presidential campaign has stagnated, it's signaled that DeSantis would again return to his longtime political foe: the mainstream media.

The interview comes a couple of weeks after DeSantis took questions from NBC News when he rolled out his border policy.

Tapper asked DeSantis about his White House bid, including the fact he is a very distant second to former President Donald Trump in most public polling, the red flags embedded in his first campaign finance report, and having to fire more than a dozen staffers after just two months after announcing his candidacy.

“They have been saying that I have been doing poorly for my whole time as governor, basically,” DeSantis said.

He noted that he secured a historic re-election in November, winning by nearly 20 percentage points, and said part of the reason he is off to a slow start is that he had to focus on Florida’s Legislature during the opening months of 2023.

“I had to do my job as governor with our legislative session,” DeSantis said. “I was basically taking fire really non-stop since then.”

Tapper noted that one of DeSantis’ priorities, the fight against so-called wokeness, is not seen as a top-level policy issue by respondents in most public polling. DeSantis said that’s because not enough people know what it means.

“Not everyone really knows what wokeness is,” DeSantis said. “I mean, I have defined it, but a lot of people who rail against wokeness cannot even define it.”

DeSantis has defined the term as a type of “cultural marxism” that puts “merit and achievement behind identity politics.” The idea that most public institutions are “infected with the woke mind virus” was the defining feature of nearly all of DeSantis’ policy proposals during his first term as governor, and the early policies outlined as he runs for president.

The latest iteration of that came Tuesday when DeSantis unveiled his plan to “rip the woke out of the military.” The proposal echoed many other DeSantis policies in recent years. He wants to remove diversity and equity programs from the military, prohibit transgender people from serving as they identify, and reenlist service members who were separated due to not following Covid vaccine mandates.

Tapper noted that the Pentagon has said that DeSantis’ concerns are not reflective of reality, which is that military readiness is high. DeSantis responded by pointing to record low recruiting numbers.

“I think you have a big problem with morale,” he said. “You clearly have a problem with recruiting.”

DeSantis’ return to mainstream media came on the same day Trump said he received a letter indicating he is the target of a Washington-based grand jury looking at the Jan. 6 riot and attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump’s announcement, via Truth Social, quickly became a central focus of the day’s news cycle, and once again prompted Republicans, including those running against Trump, to come to his defense.

"Here is the problem, this country is going down a road of criminalizing political differences,” DeSantis told Tapper, echoing the sentiment of most other Republicans who say Trump is being unfairly targeted.

DeSantis said he does not think Trump “should get charged,” and went on to criticize Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg who indicted Trump in June over allegations he made hush money payments to an adult film star and covered them up.

“If that was not Trump,” DeSantis said. “That case would likely not have been brought against a normal civilian.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

DeSantis said that, if elected, he would hire a new FBI director and that his job would be to “end weaponization of these agencies.”

On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, DeSantis said that his policy as president would be to establish peace, but would not say specifically whether he thinks Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should cede land to Russia as part of any peace settlement.

“Goal should be sustainable, enduring peace in Europe, but one that does not reward aggression,” he said. “We will pull several levers against Russia.”

He specifically pointed to energy and exports, which he called “Putin’s lifeline.”

More broadly, DeSantis signaled he would like to see U.S. foreign policy more focused on Asia, specifically China, which he called the “number one threat” to the United States. DeSantis has used his position as governor to enact laws aimed at “cracking down” on China, including recent legislation that prevents Chinese entities from buying farmland in Florida.

He also doubled down on his opposition to trans women competing in men’s sports, saying that “it’s wrong,” a consistent policy platform for him in recent years. At his urging, Republicans filed nearly 20 bills focused on Florida’s LGBTQ community during the state’s 2023 legislative session.

On the issue of abortion, however, DeSantis would not say if he would push for a federal six week abortion ban, which he recently signed into law, at the federal level.

“I think the danger from Congress is if we lose the election, they are going to try to nationalize abortion up until the moment of birth,” he said.