Ron DeSantis grappled with how not to “piss off” then-President Donald Trump’s voters during 2018 debate preparation sessions in his first campaign for Florida governor, according to videos obtained by ABC News.
In the videos, which have not been independently reviewed by CNN, the then-congressman can be seen talking through how to answer a mock question on whether there are any issues on which he disagrees with Trump. The question was posed to him by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who participated in the mock sessions.
“Obviously there is, I mean, I voted contrary to him in the Congress,” DeSantis said in the video. He added, “I have to frame it in a way that’s not going to piss off all of his voters.”
DeSantis then said he does “what he thinks is right” and that he supports Trump’s agenda but added that any disagreement he may have with the then-president he would raise in private.
Dave Abrams, a spokesman for DeSantis’ political team, slammed ABC News in a statement and said the footage proved “that Ron DeSantis is unwilling to be anyone but his authentic self – no matter the politics.”
Gaetz, who has endorsed Trump’s 2024 campaign, condemned the leak of the tapes in a tweet on Sunday.
The exchange caught on video shows how DeSantis strategized on how to embrace Trump and court his voters while also maintaining his own political identity. It’s a challenge the Florida governor is likely to face as he approaches a potential 2024 campaign against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.
In another clip aired by ABC News, advisers off camera can be heard talking to DeSantis about the importance of coming off as likable and telling him to write the word “likable” in all caps on a pad of paper at the debate podium.
“I do the same thing, cause I have the same personality, we’re both aggressive,” the unidentified adviser can be heard saying.
Trump and his allies are treating the Republican governor as if he is already a candidate. Make America Great Again Inc., a Trump-aligned super PAC, has spent about $8.6 million on ads going after DeSantis. GOP primary polls continue to show Trump leading DeSantis by a healthy margin.
On a recent international trade mission, a reporter in Tokyo asked DeSantis about Trump polling ahead of him. DeSantis visibly tensed before responding, “I’m not a candidate, so we’ll see if and when that changes.”
CNN’s Steve Contorno contributed to this report.