Asked about pardoning Trump as president, DeSantis says he would be 'aggressive'

The Florida governor has been critical of federal law enforcement.

May 25, 2023, 9:29 PM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked on Thursday about potentially using his pardon power if elected president to offer clemency to Jan. 6 defendants or even Donald Trump -- and while he didn't answer directly, he suggested he would consider it.

DeSantis made his comments while appearing on the "The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show" amid an early media blitz one day after launching a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

"A big part of being president is pardon powers. Do you think the Jan. 6 defendants deserve to have their cases examined by a Republican president? And if Trump, let's say, gets charged with federal offenses and you are the president of the United States, would you look at potentially pardoning Trump himself based on the evidence that might emerge of those charges?" Travis asked DeSantis.

The governor did not mention either Trump or any specific Jan. 6 cases by name but indicated he was open to the idea.

"We will be aggressive [in] issuing pardons," he said, arguing that the Department of Justice and FBI had become "weaponized" to pursue political rather than law enforcement goals.

Late last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland named an independent prosecutor to oversee the DOJ investigations of Trump, saying then that it "underscores the department's commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters."

DeSantis' remarks about pardons come on the same day a federal judge handed down the longest sentence to date for a Jan. 6 crime.

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges. Rhodes calls himself a "political prisoner."

"You, sir, present an ongoing threat and peril to this country," the judge told Rhodes, also citing the stockpile of weapons that the Oath Keepers had amassed outside the nation's capital ahead of the certification of Joe Biden's presidential win two years ago.

The Department of Justice reports that more than 1,000 people have been arrested in connection with the government's Jan. 6 investigation.

More than 300 people have been charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees that day, the DOJ has said, and more than 100 defendants have been accused of using deadly weapons.

About 140 police were attacked on Jan. 6, according to DOJ.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a fundraising picnic for Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, May 13, 2023, in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP, FILE

On Travis and Sexton's radio show, DeSantis said that "what I'm going to do is -- I'm going to do on day one -- I will have folks that will get together and look at all these cases, who are people, who are victims of weaponization or political targeting."

The governor didn't say whether he felt a pardon would be appropriate for the former president, whose conduct related to the attack on the Capitol is being investigated by special counsel Jack Smith.

But DeSantis said that there was the possibility that those charged in Jan. 6 were being mistreated.

"If there are three other people who did the same thing, but just in a context like [Black Lives Matter protests] and they don't get prosecuted at all, that is uneven application of justice, and so we're going to find ways where that did not happen and then we will use the pardon power," he said, later noting "it will be done on a case-by-case basis."

"And that could be from a grandma who got arrested and prosecuted to all the way up to, potentially, Trump himself," Travis said.

"I would say any example of disfavored treatment based on politics or weaponization would be included in that review, no matter how small or how big," DeSantis said.

His campaign did not respond to a request for clarification on his pardon comments.

The Florida governor, who has commanded state politics with a Republican supermajority in Tallahassee, has indicated in interviews that he would wield more executive muscle as president than is typical, touting the "levers" of the office that can enact day-one changes -- including by bypassing norms of independent law enforcement agencies.

Asked about the DOJ and FBI by WTN 99.7's Steve Murphy, DeSantis said, "Democrat but mostly Republican presidents have bought this idea that they're independent [agencies] and you can't be involved with them. No, they answer to the elected president. You have every right to call in the attorney general, call in the FBI director and say, 'Hey, wait a minute … Why are you doing this?'"

DeSantis declared his long anticipated candidacy on Wednesday night during a Twitter event with Elon Musk which was initially delayed by technical glitches.

As some of his primary opponents, like Trump, seized on the malfunction to criticize DeSantis, his team said the problems were due to how popular the online event was -- straining Twitter's capacity.

He enters the race as potentially the biggest challenger to Trump for the GOP nomination, early polls show.

DeSantis has sometimes jabbed at Trump's record in his campaigning so far, saying in one radio interview in Tennessee that he felt Trump was "running to the left."

On Thursday, he attended a donor event in Miami and raised $8.2 million in the 24 hours after starting his campaign, a spokesman said.

ABC News' Hannah Demissie, Will McDuffie and Will Steakin contributed to this report.