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DeSantis refuses to take sides in Trump-Pence clash as 2024 speculation grows

Trump has said Pence could have "overturned" the 2020 election, but Pence disagrees.
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MIAMI — Eyeing a possible White House bid, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declined on Monday to weigh in on one of the most divisive issues in the GOP: Could then-Vice President Mike Pence have “overturned” the 2020 presidential election?

Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted that Pence could have changed the outcome of the election by upending the congressional certification of the results, overturning President Joe Biden's win. On Friday, Pence rebutted his former boss, saying Trump was "wrong" to suggest he had the authority to change the outcome of the election.

Asked Monday with whom he sides, DeSantis wouldn’t say. 

“I’m not. I … ,” DeSantis told reporters at an immigration-related media event at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami before he cut himself off.

Pressed by a reporter, DeSantis changed the subject to say he had a “great working relationship” with the Trump administration during the two years his administration overlapped with it. And he then criticized the Biden White House for obstructing his agenda.

Trump remains the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination if he runs again in 2024. DeSantis is a distant second, according to early primary polls, which show him leading the pack if Trump doesn't run. Pence, who is also laying the groundwork for a presidential run, comes in third place in a crowded field that also includes Trump allies like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Although talk of a DeSantis-Trump feud has ebbed and flowed for months, both men say they have a good relationship — underscored by DeSantis’ reticence in crossing Trump on the issue of Pence's power to interfere in the Jan. 6, 2021, tally. Polls indicate that a significant proportion of GOP primary voters nationwide believe the election was stolen — despite numerous audits, investigations and court cases that found that no widespread fraud occurred to prevent Trump's victory.

DeSantis isn’t the only Florida Republican to avoid crossing Trump on the issue of the Jan. 6 certification. Facing re-election this year along with DeSantis, Sen. Marco Rubio refused Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to explicitly say whether he thought Trump was wrong, but he also signaled support for reforming the congressional process of certifying presidential elections.

“Vice presidents can’t simply decide not to certify an election,” Rubio said.

The confirmation of Biden's win was delayed when a mob incited by Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, some carrying along mock gallows and shouting, "Hang Mike Pence." The attack led to Trump's second impeachment, for which he was acquitted.

The issue of formally approving the election results has taken on an added sense of urgency in the past week. 

On Friday, the Republican National Committee referred to the Jan. 6 riot as “legitimate political discourse” in a resolution to censure two congressional Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

Also Friday, Pence publicly defended his decision to certify the election results because his role was merely ceremonial. The position is in keeping with the opinion of nearly every mainstream nonpartisan constitutional law expert. The U.S. Constitution and the 1887 Electoral Count Act don’t explicitly empower the vice president to completely ignore certified election results from each state. 

“President Trump is wrong,” Pence said in his remarks in Orlando, Florida, before the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. “I had no right to overturn the election.”

DeSantis also addressed the group. But he didn’t bring up the certification then, either. Instead, he touted his state’s laissez-faire approach to responding to the coronavirus pandemic, an issue that helped make him a national political force in the GOP. As his stock has risen nationwide, DeSantis has raised money across the country for his re-election and often doesn’t shy away from questions of concern to national Republicans. 

While DeSantis was unwilling to comment this week on the Electoral College certification, he did touch on the issue in an interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham days after the election. In the conversation, DeSantis suggested that GOP-run state legislatures in Georgia or Pennsylvania could appoint alternate slates of electors. Neither state did, and Biden won both, catapulting him to the presidency.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan congressional group is examining whether to reform the Electoral Count Act to make it clear that a vice president can’t ignore state election results and to give the courts more say over the process in the end. 

Trump, who has issued a steady stream of lies and misinformation about Pence’s role and the 2020 election results, reacted to Pence’s limited show of defiance by issuing two statements. In one, Trump admitted that he wanted Pence to “overturn” the election. 

In a second email, Trump denied that he wanted the election “overturned” but merely wanted Pence to reject votes from states he lost because of fraud — which no state found.