DeSantis finally acknowledges the truth about Trump's 2020 election lies: 'Of course he lost'

FILE-Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks with President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Pensacola International Airport on November 3, 2018 in Pensacola, Florida. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis said definitively that rival Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, an acknowledgement the Florida governor made after years of equivocating answers.

"Of course he lost," DeSantis said an interview with NBC News posted Monday. "Joe Biden's the president."

DeSantis has often sidestepped questions about whether he believes the 2020 election results were legitimate. But in recent days he has started publicly questioning the lies that Trump and his allies have made about the election's legitimacy.

Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general said there was no credible evidence the election’s outcome was affected by fraud. The former president’s allegations were also roundly rejected by courts at the time, including judges he appointed.

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Last week, Trump was charged by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith with four felonies related to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the run-up to the violent riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

DeSantis' shift in rhetoric has come as he seeks to reset his stagnant 2024 White House campaign. Trump, who remains widely popular with the Republican Party base, is the early and commanding front-runner in next year's GOP presidential primary.

DeSantis in his interview at first didn't offer a clear answer when asked if Trump lost, saying, "Whoever puts their hand on the Bible on Jan. 20 every four years is the winner." But he gave a more direct answer when pressed again.

The governor repeated his concerns about voting methods from the 2020 election, criticizing mail voting and so-called "ballot harvesting," but like other Republicans he said he would embrace the methods he had criticized.

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"We are going to do it, too. We're not going to fight with one hand tied behind our backs," DeSantis said.

Academic research has shown that mail voting increases turnout but doesn’t benefit either party. Campaigns have normally pushed for it, allowing them to lock in votes early and focus their efforts on Election Day to encourage straggling supporters to get to the polls.

"The issue is, I think, what people in the media and elsewhere, they want to act like somehow this was just like the perfect election. I don't think it was a good-run election, but I also think Republicans didn't fight back. You've got to fight back when that is happening," he said.

DeSantis has cast himself on the campaign trail as someone who could more successfully implement Trump's politics and has walked a wobbly line criticizing his actions.

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Last month, he said Trump should have offered a stronger condemnation of the Jan. 6 attack. But he also said it was not an insurrection but a "protest" that "ended up devolving, you know, in a way that was unfortunate."

DeSantis has argued Republicans will lose in 2024 if they're focusing on the past election and the former president's legal problems, which also includes federal charges of mishandling classified documents, including those stored at Mar-a-Lago in a ballroom and bathroom, among other spaces.

"If the election is a referendum on Joe Biden's policies and the failures that we've seen and we are presenting a positive vision for the future, we will win the presidency," DeSantis told NBC. "If, on the other hand, the election is not about Jan. 20, 2025, but Jan. 6, 2021, or what document was left by the toilet at Mar-a-Lago, if it's a referendum on that, we are going to lose."