DeSantis talks Trump, trans issues and 'what wokeness is'

The GOP hopeful gave a rare mainstream media interview as his campaign pivots.

July 19, 2023, 4:09 PM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sat down Tuesday with CNN's Jake Tapper for an interview -- and even just by sitting across from Tapper, DeSantis entered unfamiliar territory.

It was the first interview that DeSantis has given a mainstream media outlet since he announced his run for president in late May. That pivot comes amid reports of other changes within his campaign, including a staffing reduction, as early polls show he remains persistently stuck in second place behind former President Donald Trump.

Part of DeSantis' interview with Tapper on Tuesday addressed Trump directly, in light of the news that Trump is the target of a federal investigation into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election -- the latest in a list of legal woes that have seen his support with Republican voters only increase since the spring, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling average.

When asked by Tapper if Trump should be held accountable if special counsel Jack Smith finds evidence of criminality, DeSantis talked about what he claims to be unfair treatment of Republicans by federal agencies before saying, "I hope he doesn't get charged." (Trump has denied any wrongdoing.)

"I don't think it serves us good to have a presidential election focused on what happened four years ago in January, and so I want to focus on looking forward," DeSantis told Tapper.

The governor was pressed on some of the policy positions he has pushed on the campaign trail, including his criticism of what he calls politicization in the military and his reluctance to boost Ukraine's fight against Russia, arguing it is not a major U.S. priority.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Tennessee Republican Party Statesmen's Dinner, July 15, 2023, in Nashville.
George Walker Iv/AP

The interview, conducted in South Carolina, where DeSantis campaigned this week, lacked any of the fierce back-and-forths that have sometimes marked DeSantis' interaction with reporters.

On Russia's invasion of Ukraine -- which DeSantis in March called "a territorial dispute," before walking back those comments, saying he was misunderstood, after blowback including from Republican leaders like Sen. John Thune of South Dakota -- the governor told Tapper that the war is "more of a secondary or tertiary interest" for the United States.

DeSantis called on Europe to be more involved in supporting Ukraine while promising to commit American resources to the Indo-Pacific region to deter China from potentially attacking Taiwan.

Asked whether he would push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to cede land that Russia seized in order to bring about an end to the invasion, DeSantis did not answer directly, calling for "a sustainable, enduring peace in Europe, but one that does not reward aggression."

DeSantis defended the state of his own campaign, which financial filings published Saturday show has burned through nearly $8 million in the initial weeks after he launched his White House bid, without much improvement in the polls.

DeSantis blamed his stagnant numbers on being a top target for other campaigns and opponents.

"I think the reason is I was getting a lot of media attention at the time, coming off the victory," he said, pointing to his 20-point reelection win last year.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks with Jake Tapper during and interview with CNN, July 18, 2023.

DeSantis, a Navy veteran, blamed "woke" policies for a decline in military enrollment, though he acknowledged the term "woke" is not widely understood.

When Tapper presented a survey suggesting that "wokeness" ranked ninth in a list of factors affecting enrollment, DeSantis responded, "Well, but I think there's an issue about -- not everyone really knows what wokeness is. I mean, I've defined it, but a lot of people who've railed against wokeness can't even define it. And so I think it's a sense of, this is not something that's holding true to the core martial values that make the military unique."

DeSantis, who as governor has supported restrictions on transgender people's access to gender-affirming care, particularly for trans children -- and faced fierce criticism from advocates as a result -- was asked by Tapper about how trans people would fare under his administration.

"I would respect everybody, but what I wouldn't do is turn society upside down to be able to accommodate [what] is a very, very small percentage of the population," he said.