ORLANDO – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke to a friendly crowd, touting his “default” pandemic position – freedom – during an appearance at a convention of the conservative legal advocacy group the Federalist Society on Friday evening.
In what was dubbed a “fireside chat” without a fire, DeSantis sat with former White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, also a Floridian, and presented his record as Florida governor, all the while punching upward at President Joe Biden.
DeSantis followed former Vice President Mike Pence. Both men are considered top-tier possible Republican nominees for president in 2024, especially if former President Donald Trump decides against running again. The governor also faces his own reelection campaign later this year.
Pence earlier in the evening addressed his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, certification of the Electoral College vote in favor of Biden over Trump, who this week had said Pence should have unilaterally overturned the election results, rather than certify them.
On Friday, Pence said Trump was wrong – a departure for the otherwise deferential former VP.
DeSantis, whose election in 2018 was kickstarted by Trump’s endorsement, has also avoided crossing the former president. Having been far away from the Capitol in January 2021, DeSantis on Friday was free to burnish his Florida freedom narrative.
And with McEnany, now an on-air contributor to Fox News, he was free from having to discuss uncomfortable subjects, such as the 66,000-plus COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, litigation problems such as the Seminole Tribe gambling agreement and the housing crisis.
McEnany said after the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, Trump in May 2020 declared all churches “essential” and free to be open for worship. DeSantis, she noted, had already done that a month earlier.
“You do not throw people’s rights out the window,” DeSantis said. “That was just something we didn’t want to do, particularly when you saw states closing houses of worship but … liquor stores could operate, strip clubs, you name it.”
During the late winter and early spring of 2020, when the pandemic was in its infancy and officials faced unprecedented choices between public health guidelines and liberties most Americans took for granted, even DeSantis had issued executive orders closing many businesses and schools.
But as weeks turned into months, the former Volusia-Flagler congressman opened the state’s economy faster than a lot of other states, facing criticism he was doing so at the risk of Floridians’ health.
“It seemed like the narrative was no one could talk about individual rights. It’s all about lockdown. You can’t have an open state. You can’t have kids in school. You can’t do all that,” DeSantis said. “We viewed it the opposite. The default needs to be freedom.”
‘Irked’ by mask, vaccine mandates
He took a similar stance when it came to mask and vaccine mandates.
“In Florida what we did is say you’re not going to have to choose between a jab and your job. We’re going to protect you. We’re going to make sure that you’re able to earn a living and that you can exercise your rights,” he said.
DeSantis said he was “irked” by mandates that failed to recognize the strength of immunity through prior infection: “I think it was more about control. I think it was more about targeting people that they don’t like, and I also think it was an inappropriate use of not only government power, but also corporate power.”
DeSantis also said he never mandated masks in Florida “because there was never a basis to,” taking issue with longstanding COVID-19 guidance that masks are effective in preventing the spread of the virus.
He cited studies in Denmark and Bangladesh that he said prove cloth masks are “null in terms of their impact,” ignoring other studies and Centers for Disease Control guidance showing that such masks do offer some protection.
“Now, actually, if you look at some of these legacy media outlets, they will have these doctors on who will say the cloth masks don’t work. They wouldn’t allow that six, eight months ago, but they now acknowledge that,” DeSantis said.
He also failed to explain the context of why public health officials have begun pushing harder for people to use N-95 masks, rather than cloth masks: The omicron variant first detected in November has proven to be more infectious than previous strains.
Months after squaring off with some Florida school boards over school closures and requiring masks for children indoors, DeSantis said parents who opposed those mandates were right, “and the forced-maskers were wrong,” as masking children has been destructive to their ability to learn, their speech development and their emotional well-being.
“If it wasn’t for me, the kids would have been locked out of school in 2020 in the state of Florida. That’s just the reality … . We stood in the breach. We fought back. We stood up for our kids and now people are trying to rewrite history, saying ‘Oh, no, no … everyone wanted the schools open.’ That is just not true. And so we were right on that and they were grievously, grievously wrong.”
The line got applause from the Federalist Society audience.
On illegal immigration, judges
DeSantis said the Legislature, at his urging, is considering a bill that would discourage transportation companies, such as airlines and buses, that help the federal government relocate undocumented immigrants into Florida.
“We’re saying if you’re facilitating illegal migration into Florida, you’re going to forfeit the ability to do business with state or local communities in Florida, and we’re going to charge you restitution for every person that you’re bringing into the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “… We are getting money to reroute them to sanctuary states like Delaware and these other places.”
DeSantis heaped criticism on Democrats, the media and academia, but he saved some critique for Republican-nominated justices on the Supreme Court.
“I kind of feel that it’s always our side where you will have somebody just not have the fortitude or the backbone to faithfully apply the law and Constitution in situations in which it will not be popular with the elite rung of our society, where you will get smeared by corporate media, where you will have law professors screeching and all of this other stuff,” DeSantis said.
POLITICO reported Friday that “emails handed over to American Oversight, a group that bills itself as a government watchdog, suggest that DeSantis is in regular contact with Justice Clarence Thomas.”
As the governor told McEnany, “You know, someone like Justice (Clarence) Thomas, (the late Justice Antonin) Scalia, they didn’t give a damn what any of those other people thought and I think they were better justices as a result.”
McEnany asked DeSantis what qualities he looks for when appointing a judge.
“I really think the most important ingredient is does somebody have the fortitude? You have life tenure for a reason. They gave you life tenure because they didn’t want you responding to kind of the whims of society,” he said. “And you have some, like the chief justice (John Roberts), who views his job as to make the court ‘not political’ and he tries to do that by being political, so that he’s not seen as doing a Republican decision.”
DeSantis cited a 5-4 decision from 2012 upholding the Affordable Care Act. Roberts was the deciding vote, ruling the law’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance was a tax and not unconstitutional.
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