In 2018 debate prep, recordings show DeSantis feared becoming ‘mini version of Kavanaugh’ over racial issues


(TALLAHASSEE) — During his first run for governor of Florida in 2018, then-Congressman Ron DeSantis was publicly grappling with a number of issues regarding race that had plagued his campaign.

In one incident, DeSantis came under fire for a public comment he made ahead of the election in which he urged Florida voters not to “monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda”– which drew a strong rebuke from his African American opponent, Democratic Andrew Gillum.

DeSantis pushed back at the time, saying the comment had “zero to do with race.”

Now, video footage exclusively obtained by ABC News of the DeSantis team’s mock debate sessions during that 2018 run for governor show him and his advisers candidly discussing how to handle their response to the “monkey” comment backlash — with DeSantis comparing the issue to a “a mini version of Kavanaugh,” an apparent reference to the firestorm that arose over sexual assault allegations leveled against then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which Kavanaugh strongly denied.

“If I show any weakness on that, I think I lose my base,” DeSantis said during the discussions, according to the nearly two and a half hours of private 2018 debate prep footage obtained by ABC News. “I think that I appear to be less than a leader, and so I just think I’ve got to come at it full throttle and say that’s wrong.”

He wanted to come at the issue hard and “speak to those people” who felt “political correctness has gone too far,” DeSantis said in the video.

At another point, his then-adviser Rep. Matt Gaetz — who has gone on to support former President Donald Trump’s third bid for the White House — told DeSantis he was coming in “too hot” on the issue.

“It deserves to be hot!” DeSantis exclaimed. “I mean, I’m sorry!”

“Kavanaugh showed that when you say ‘f— this,” DeSantis said regarding the accusations against the then-nominee. “We did such a horrible job of pushing back on all these stupid stories from the beginning. He’s going to rattle off a list.”

And behind closed doors, DeSantis said that if he had meant the racist comment, he would have apologized.

“Nobody thinks that’s what you meant,” an adviser off camera told DeSantis, who responded, “Right, that’s a thing. I mean, if I honestly meant — I would have apologized, I mean, because it would have been wrong. I mean, I’ll man up.”

The newly obtained videos come amid ABC News’ recent reporting that DeSantis’ team has already quietly begun debate prep for the upcoming GOP primary, including reviewing past debate performances, sources familiar with the preparations have said. DeSantis is now likely to skip announcing an exploratory committee, despite previous reports, and instead is expected to launch a full campaign next month, sources said.

During the 2018 debate prep sessions, DeSantis also appeared to downplay a comment criticized as racist made by a right-wing author David Horowitz, who had hosted a number of conferences that DeSantis had spoken at. “David has done such great work …. and I’ve been a big admirer of an organization that shoots straight, tells the American people the truth and is standing up for the right thing,” DeSantis said in 2015 of Horowitz, who among other things had criticized Black Americans for not feeling “gratitude” toward whites for their “sacrifices” in ending slavery.

At one of the public debates against Gillum in October 2018, DeSantis sidestepped the issue, responding to a moderator’s question on the topic by saying, “How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement someone makes?”

But privately, according to the recordings of the debate prep sessions obtained by ABC News, DeSantis downplayed the comment made by Horowitz, saying it was “stupid” but not racist.

“A lot of the stuff they’re saying isn’t even racist. Like, David Horowitz said that, ‘Oh, Black people should thank white people for ending slavery.’ That’s a stupid comment, but that’s not the same thing,” DeSantis said.

Gaetz cut him off, saying clearly: “You will not win” that argument.

“I’m not gonna get into that,” DeSantis said in agreement. “I know I’m not gonna — I can’t win that, I know.”

“The point is, is that they’re taking things that have nothing to do with me, but they’re also making it way worse than they even actually were, and then trying to paint, you know, paint a narrative. And it’s bull—-” DeSantis said, referring to criticism he was facing at the time over his “monkey it up” comment, his association with Horowitz, and reports that he served as an admin for a racist Facebook group, which he denied.

“All this stuff, I mean is just a bunch of crap, I mean it really is,” DeSantis said on the tape.

During one of the prep sessions, the governor’s wife, Casey, attempted to provide an explanation for the governor’s “monkey it up” comment: that DeSantis had only said “monkey” because he had been reading their daughter’s favorite book, “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed"” to their kids at night.

When Casey asked the room if that explanation would “matter,” Gaetz quickly responded, “Nobody cares.”

“Nobody cares?” Casey, off camera, replied.

“Not even a little,” Gaetz said.

A representative for DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.

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