Ron Desantis
CNN  — 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday lashed out at those who called on him to condemn Nazi demonstrations that had taken place over the weekend near Orlando, accusing his political opponents of trying to “smear me as if I had something to do with it.”

DeSantis was responding to a question about viral videos and photos of a small group of people wearing Nazi symbols yelling antisemitic slurs while demonstrating Saturday and Sunday on streets and highway overpasses in the Orlando area. While other Florida political leaders, including many Republicans, publicly condemned the gathering, DeSantis had not, sparking some criticism of the governor on social media.

DeSantis said those critics were trying to “use this as some type of political issue,” adding: “We’re not playing their game.”

The remarks came a day after DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw posted and then deleted a tweet questioning if the demonstrators were actually Democrats in disguise.

“Do we even know they’re Nazis?” Pushaw said in the deleted tweet. “I trust Florida law enforcement to investigate and am awaiting their conclusions.” She later clarified that she didn’t know who had staged the protest and called the use of Nazi symbolism and hate speech “disgusting.”

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization working to stop antisemitism, wrote on Twitter that it was “alarmed” that Pushaw “would first give cover to antisemites rather than immediately and forcefully condemning their revolting, hate-filled rally and assault.”

The group added that DeSantis should “address the fears of the Jewish community thoughtfully – not with this troubling and careless approach.”

Democratic candidates for governor immediately reacted to DeSantis’ news conference. US Rep. Charlie Crist wrote on Twitter: “It should be easy, Ron. Condemn the Nazis.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who was recently rebuked by the Anti-Defamation League for comparing DeSantis to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, said in a news release that she was “horrified but not surprised” that DeSantis had declined to condemn what had happened.

Images and clips of people wearing Nazi symbols while saluting and shouting at passing cars sent shock waves through Florida. Orange County Sheriff John Mina vowed on Twitter to investigate any criminal activity.

“I along with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office deplore any type of hate speech,” Mina wrote. “This hatred has no place in our society.”

Condemnations poured in from across the political spectrum on social media. US Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat who represents Orlando, wrote that “America beat their disturbing ideology before and we’ll do it again.” Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican and former governor, wrote that the recent rise of antisemitism in America was “heartbreaking & disgusting.”

“We must always condemn it & continue to stand strongly with our Jewish communities,” Scott wrote.

DeSantis, though, had not made a public statement about the incidents until asked about them Monday afternoon at a news conference to address Everglades funding. DeSantis referred to the demonstrators as “some jackass doing this on the street.”

A video with 267,000 views posted to Twitter on Saturday supposedly captured the demonstrators fighting a man in the roadway.

DeSantis said state law enforcement will “hold them accountable” because the individuals involved had hung flags on the fence of a highway overpass, which is a violation of Florida law.

“They’re absolutely going to do that and they should do that,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis said his administration has a proven track record of supporting the Jewish people, including signing legislation to address antisemitism, “record funding” for Jewish day schools, punishing companies that boycott Israel and strengthening economic ties with Israel.

“I’m not going to have people try to smear me that belong to a political party that has elevated antisemites to the halls of Congress, like (US Rep.) Ilhan Omar, that have played footsie with the (boycott Israel) movement,” he said.

Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, apologized in 2019 after she had been accused of using antisemetic tropes in public statements she had made criticizing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying organization.