“Of course” Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, Ron DeSantis said in an interview broadcast Monday – after being pressed on the issue.
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Appearing on NBC, the Florida governor and nearest challenger to Trump for the nomination in 2024 was asked: “Yes or no – did Donald Trump lose the 2020 election?”
DeSantis said: “Whoever puts their hand on the Bible on 20 January every four years is the winner.”
His interviewer, Dasha Burns, said: “If you can’t give a yes or no on whether or not Trump lost –”
DeSantis said: “No, of course he lost!”
Burns said: “Trump lost the 2020 election?”
DeSantis said: “Of course! Joe Biden’s the president.”
Trump continues to lie that the 2020 election was decided by voter fraud, even after the former president was last week indicted on four criminal charges related to his attempts to overturn the result.
Despite those charges and 74 others over hush-money payments and retention of classified records, and despite the prospect of more election-related charges in Georgia, Trump leads DeSantis by more than 30 points in most polling averages and by healthy margins in early voting states.
DeSantis’s campaign is widely seen to be tanking. He and the rest of the Republican field have struggled to find a way to attack Trump, given his hold on the party. Discomfort when asked to say Biden won in 2020 or to condemn Trump’s lie is widely seen to be a symptom of that malaise.
DeSantis told NBC the 2024 election should be a “referendum on Joe Biden’s policies, and the failures that we’ve seen and we are presenting a positive vision for the future”.
If it is, he said, “We will win the presidency, and we will have a chance to turn the country around.
“If, on the other hand, the election is not about 20 January 2025 [inauguration day] but 6 January 2021 [the day of the deadly attack on Congress by Trump supporters] or what document was left by the toilet at Mar-a-Lago, if it is a referendum on that, we are going to lose, and that’s just the reality.”
A Trump spokesperson, Steve Cheung, told NBC: “Ron DeSantis should really stop being Joe Biden’s biggest cheerleader.”
Another Trump aide, Liz Harrington, said: “If you think Joe Biden got 81 million votes, you’re an idiot. If you’re just saying that, you’re either a coward or corrupt. Either way it’s disqualifying.”
In 2020, Biden received 81,282,916 votes to 74,223,369 for Trump. Biden won the presidency in the electoral college by 306-232, the result by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
DeSantis did offer Trump support, echoing his claim that his proliferating legal problems are the results of political persecution.
DeSantis also said the 2020 election was not a “good-run election”.
“But I also think Republicans didn’t fight back,” DeSantis added. “You’ve got to fight back when that is happening.
“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 [former Covid task force leader Dr Anthony] Fauci.
“They embraced lockdowns. They did the Cares Act, which funded mail-in ballots across the country.”
As NBC pointed out, Florida has long allowed voting by mail.
Related: Kamala Harris rejects Ron DeSantis offer to discuss slavery curriculum
In the interview, scheduled to air on NBC Nightly News on Monday night, DeSantis was also asked about new standards for teaching history in Florida schools, which have proved controversial for saying some Black people benefited from being enslaved.
DeSantis said: “We’ve been involved in education, not indoctrination. Those standards were not political at all.”
Kamala Harris, the vice-president, has attacked DeSantis on the issue.
Asked about criticism from Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the US Senate and a rival for the presidential nomination, DeSantis said: “Don’t take that side of Kamala Harris against the state of Florida. Don’t indulge those lies.”