When Ron DeSantis first ran for a US House seat in Florida in 2012, the retired Navy officer won the support of one of the Republican Party’s most prominent advocacy hawks.
John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations known for his sharp elbows and pugilistic approach to foreign policy, spoke at a Washington fundraiser for the political newcomer, who won the seat. Impressed by DeSantis’ record and his understanding of «the dangers we face abroad,» Bolton I would also come back their candidacies for re-election in the amount of $20,000.
Now governor of Florida and likely presidential contender, DeSantis has begun to move away from the aggressive rhetoric that won Bolton over a decade ago and continued through his three terms in Congress.
The deeper evidence came this week, when, in response to questions from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, DeSantis said that protecting Ukraine is not in the «vital» national interest of the US. That position aligns with DeSantis, who has yet to declare his candidacy, with former President Donald Trump at a time when the two appear to be on a collision course for the 2024 Republican nomination.
In interviews Thursday, Bolton, who is weighing an offer to have the president halt another Trump term, said he was disappointed in DeSantis’s stance and said he is opening up to the former president calling him a «flip-flopper.»
“The problem with trying to align with Trump in any position is that their positions are very short-lived,” Bolton said. “By moving to try to mirror what Trump is saying, he may follow you for another week. Trump is trying different lines of attack; flip-flopper seems to be the place to start.»
“I can’t say I’ve followed every aspect of some of the things he’s done in Florida,” Bolton added. «But my impression, certainly on national security issues as a governor facing issues in this hemisphere (Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua), was still on the right track.»
A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to Carlson this week, DeSantis invoked several «vital national interests,» including border security and the rise of China, but said «getting further entangled in a Ukraine-Russia territorial dispute is not one of them.»
Trump, leading in most polls but aware that the governor is his strongest potential rival right now, noted that DeSantis has taken a much tougher line on Ukraine in the past. In Congress, he voted in favor of several defense bills that provided for US military and intelligence support.
«It’s a flip-flop,» Trump told reporters while campaigning this week in Iowa, where the first Republican Party presidential caucus is scheduled to be held. “He was totally different. What I want, he wants.»
DeSantis trimmed the figure of a traditional Republican defense hawk as a member of Congress from 2013 until he resigned his seat in 2018, during his gubernatorial bid. He took a particularly hard line in support of Israel, sponsoring measures to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, limit US support for the Palestinians and allow states to impose their own sanctions on Iran. On the latter issue, DeSantis was openly critical of then-President Barack Obama’s entry into a multilateral nuclear deal that Trump later abandoned.
As a freshman lawmaker, DeSantis broke with the majority of his party by voting against ordering Obama to end the war in Afghanistan. His outspokenness was on display again in 2016, when he voted in favor of a resolution calling on Obama to “provide Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons systems to enhance the ability of the Ukrainian people to defend their sovereign territory from continued unprovoked aggression by The Russian Federation.»
While DeSantis generally supported defense policy and spending bills, he sometimes broke with fellow Republicans over US military intervention abroad, funding to maintain a War-era nuclear weapon Cold and help for nation building. He found himself in the minority of Republicans who unsuccessfully tried to block a non-binding amendment expressing support for the removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power in Syria in 2013. He also voted to defund the B-nuclear bomb. 61 and reduce infrastructure spending in Afghanistan.
By 2017, when Trump was in office and DeSantis was chair of a subcommittee on the House Foreign Affairs panel, he was asking tough questions about the US mission in Afghanistan.
“Today, after more than 16 years in Afghanistan, it is not clear that things are much better than they were after the fall of the Taliban,” DeSantis said at a hearing with the special inspector general who oversees US programs there. “Is Afghanistan on the brink of becoming a terrorist’s dream again? Are we making the same mistakes over and over again? Should we end this whole godforsaken place? Or should we worry that ISIS now has a dangerous affiliate, ISIS-K, in Afghanistan that aspires to reach out and attack the US homeland? How do we do this right? Or can we?»
There were other cases in which the aggressive DeSantis rejected or clashed with Trump’s more isolationist impulses. He called on Trump in 2017 to “apply additional pressure” on the Nicolás Maduro regime after sponsoring a successful House resolution condemning the “political, social, economic and humanitarian crises” under the Venezuelan dictator’s watch. Trump, in subsequent years, express interest in meeting with Maduro.
Also in 2017, during a Foreign Affairs committee of the Chamber audience Speaking to State Department officials, DeSantis referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a «chubby, immature young boy.» Trump pandered to the dictator, held summits with Kim and marveled at the «beautiful» communications between them.
Taken together, DeSantis’ positions demonstrated a worldview that promoted the projection of American force, particularly in defense of allies against their enemies, but allowed limits on the use of that power.
Another announced Republican nominee, Nikki Haley, like Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, parted ways with Trump and DeSantis this week, while mocking the Florida governor for «copying» the former president’s stance on Ukraine and serve as an “echo” not a “choice” for voters.
«Unlike other anti-American regimes, [Russia] it is trying to brutally force itself into a neighboring pro-American country,” Haley said in response to Carlson’s question about whether Ukraine is a vital US interest. “It also regularly threatens other US allies. The United States is much better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory, even avoiding a broader war.»
As the highest survey As an alternative to Trump in a Republican primary that could feature several stridently anti-Trump candidates splitting the vote, DeSantis needs to strip the former president of conservative votes, said a Republican strategist who is not affiliated with any campaign or potential candidate. Jumping to the populist right on the Ukraine issue could help.
“DeSantis recognizes that he cannot lead the moderates to victory,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It is a risky strategy. You are going to lose people doing this. The question is: Does this open the door to the people he needs to beat Trump?»
DeSantis’s departure from those positions in the midst of an anticipated presidential campaign has drawn arrows not only from rivals but also from supporters. The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., a friend of DeSantis, criticized DeSantis on Wednesday for his «disconcerting surrender this week to the Trumpian lure of US withdrawal.»
«Mr. DeSantis has issued more aggressive stories on Russia in the past, and these will be interpreted by the press as contradictions,» the editorial board wrote. «This could become less of a policy issue than a character issue. What does Ron think?» DeSantis, anyway?