Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sunday rejected Donald Trump's claim that he was the true winner of the 2020 presidential election in his most forceful comments to date on the matter.
"Whoever puts their hand on the Bible on Jan. 20 every four years is the winner," DeSantis told NBC News correspondent Dasha Burns in his first broadcast network interview since he launched his presidential campaign.
DeSantis continued to discuss all the ways he believed the previous presidential election was not perfect. But pressed further, he clearly stated that Trump lost.
"But respectfully, you did not clearly answer that question," Burns said. "And if you can’t give a 'yes' or 'no' on whether or not he lost —"
"No, of course he lost," DeSantis said, adding, "Joe Biden’s the president."
Tune in for the interview Monday on "TODAY" and "NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt." Additional segments will air throughout the day on MSNBC and NBC News NOW. The full interview will also be available on NBCNews.com.
"Ron DeSantis should really stop being Joe Biden’s biggest cheerleader," Trump spokesman Steve Cheung told NBC News.
DeSantis' comments come just days after Trump pleaded not guilty to charges that he broke the law by trying to overturn the 2020 election.
And at a campaign stop in Iowa on Friday, DeSantis also strongly dismissed theories that the election was stolen, saying they "did not prove to be true."
Still, DeSantis made sure to point out in Sunday's interview that he saw a number of problems with the 2020 election, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s grants for election administration, the widespread availability of mail-in ballots, state laws that allow third parties to collect and return voters' ballots, and how social media outlets de-emphasized a story about the laptop of President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
"I think what people in the media and elsewhere, they want to act like somehow this was just like the perfect election. ... 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."
But DeSantis also took aim at Trump, saying he set the stage for his own loss by signing the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill in response to the Covid-19 crisis. About $400 million of that money went to help states with election administration — and many states made voting by mail more widely available during the pandemic.
"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 Fauci," DeSantis said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. "They embraced lockdowns. They did the CARES Act, which funded mail-in ballots across the country."
Florida has long allowed anyone who wants to vote by mail to do so, including in the 2020 election.
Trump has been a vocal opponent of mail-in voting. For the 2024 election, the Republican National Committee has been attempting a "change of culture" to get GOP voters to embrace early voting, including voting by mail, after years of Trump's demonizing the practice.
Moving on from Trump
DeSantis refused to lean into attacking Trump over his legal troubles, insisting that "it’s not really about Donald Trump" and emphasizing his opposition to a justice system that "is not fair if it is weaponized."
He also said focusing too much on Trump and his indictments is a problematic pathway for the GOP.
"If the election is a referendum on Joe Biden’s policies and the failures that we’ve seen and we are presenting a positive vision for the future, we will win the presidency and we will have a chance to turn the country around," DeSantis said.
"If, on the other hand, the election is not about Jan. 20, 2025, but Jan. 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."
Florida standards on Black history
DeSantis also discussed the new Florida standards around teaching Black history to middle schoolers — particularly a widely criticized provision that children be instructed that enslaved people developed "skills" that could be used for their "personal benefit."
DeSantis has tried to distance himself a bit from the standards, having said last month: "I didn't do it. I wasn't involved."
But he has also defended the standards, saying they were "probably going to show some of the folks," referring to enslaved people, "that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life."
Asked about the topic Sunday, DeSantis said: "So that means they developed skills in spite of slavery, not because of slavery. It was them showing resourcefulness and then using those skills once slavery ended."
"We’ve been involved in education, not indoctrination," he added. "Those standards were not political at all. The Legislature didn’t dictate any of that. Governor’s office didn’t dictate anything of that."
DeSantis has faced significant criticism over the standards, including from four of the five Black Republicans in Congress. All four who have spoken out have endorsed Trump except Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is running for president himself.
Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, said last month: "What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating. So I would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that."
Confronted with Scott’s quote in the interview Sunday, DeSantis replied: "Don't take that side of Kamala Harris against the state of Florida. Don't indulge those lies."
DeSantis continued to note that a group of Black scholars developed the standards. But as NBC News has reported, a majority of the members of the work group did not support the most controversial elements that were eventually released.
'Lethal force' against migrants
One of the issues on which DeSantis has been running to the right of Trump is immigration. In late June, he said he supported using "deadly force" against migrants coming into the U.S. who were suspected of smuggling drugs.
“You’re already on U.S. soil once ... you get through the wall,” he told NBC News at the time. “You have hostile intent, because you’re obviously running drugs. You absolutely can use deadly force."
DeSantis doubled down on his proposal Sunday, saying that "cartels are basically foreign terrorist organizations" and that "lethal force" is justified.
Burns pressed DeSantis about how he would be able to "tell good guys from bad guys, especially when folks are crossing the border under cover of night."
"Same way a police officer would know," DeSantis replied. "Same way somebody operating in Iraq would know. You know, these people in Iraq at the time, they all looked the same. You didn’t know who had a bomb strapped to them. So those guys have to make judgments."
DeSantis served in Iraq and is the only veteran running in the 2024 race.
No penalties against women for getting an abortion
In April, DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban into law. Burns asked the governor "to what extent do you believe that women should be punished for violating an abortion ban?"
"Not at all," he replied. "No, I don’t think this is an issue about the woman. I think a lot of these women, you know, are in very difficult circumstances. They don’t get any support from a lot of the fathers. And a lot of them, the number one reason why women choose to have an abortion is because they’re not getting support and they feel abandoned. Now, in Florida we’ve provided support and we’ve put our money where our mouth is, but at the end of the day, you know, I would not support any penalties on a woman."
When asked if he would "veto any sort of federal bill that tries to put a nationwide ban in place," DeSantis replied, "We will be a pro-life president and we will support pro-life policies."
DeSantis also said he didn't support limits on contraception.
"No, no, no, no," he replied. "Contraception in Florida — we actually, our Department of Health, we provide about 100,000 people a year with access to contraception at no cost to them. And I think it should be available over-the-counter, and I think people should be able to have access to it."