DeSantis goes after Trump on abortion, COVID-19 and the border wall in an Iowa town hall

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BY JONATHAN J. COOPER

Donald Trump “flip-flipped” on abortion, overreached in response to COVID-19 and failed to uphold his campaign pledge to get Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday in Iowa.

DeSantis, who is in a distant second place behind Trump in most national polls in the battle for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, stepped up his case against the former president during a CNN town hall in Des Moines five weeks before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

He zeroed in on abortion in a state where evangelical voters form the backbone of the GOP, contrasting Trump’s recent skepticism about strict anti-abortion laws with his earlier comments about protecting the sanctity of life.

“You should be consistent in your beliefs, especially on something that’s very fundamental, and he has not been consistent,” DeSantis said. “And there’s a lot of voters in Iowa who really care about this, who need to know how he’s changed his position.”

DeSantis last month picked up the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Iowa evangelical leader who has also questioned Trump’s commitment to the anti-abortion movement. Trump has responded by emphasizing his support from more than 150 pastors around the state.

Abortion has become a flashpoint in U.S. politics since a Supreme Court majority shaped by Trump’s three appointments eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, helping to power unexpectedly strong Democratic performances in the 2022 midterms. Trump has not backed a national abortion ban and has criticized the way many Republican politicians talk about the issue. He has implied that a Florida law DeSantis signed, which outlaws abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, is “ too harsh.”

Asked about the case of Kate Cox, a Texas woman who sought an abortion when her health deteriorated as she carried a fetus with a fatal condition, DeSantis was vague. He said “these are very difficult issues” and pointed to the Florida law’s exceptions allowing abortions when the mother’s life is in danger, though in Cox’s case, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that her pregnancy complications did not constitute the kind of medical emergency under which abortions are allowed.

DeSantis has staked his campaign on a strong showing in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses on Jan. 15, but he’s struggled to break out of a distant second place. Like most of his rivals, he has largely treated the front-runner gingerly, avoiding direct criticism of Trump, who remains popular with GOP primary voters.

But sprinkled through the CNN town hall was a case to Trump-supporting voters that it’s time to move on. Trump, he said, is no longer the colorful “America First” advocate whom Republicans embraced in 2016.

“Now a lot of it’s about him,” DeSantis said.

And he worked to pierce rosy memories of Trump’s tenure in the White House. He said Trump erred in his response to COVID-19, an issue that helped catapult DeSantis to GOP prominence when he refused to go along with strict lockdowns that most other governors imposed early in the pandemic.

“The first three years of the Trump administration, the economy’s better than it has been, but that last year with COVID, I think was mishandled dramatically,” DeSantis said. “Shutting down the country was a huge mistake. Printing trillions and trillions of dollars was a huge mistake.”

DeSantis also took aim at one of the defining themes of Trump’s first run for the White House: his promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and have the Mexican government pay for it.

“That didn’t happen,” DeSantis said. “And why didn’t it happen? Well, one, I think he got distracted, and he didn’t do it on day one. But, two, he didn’t utilize the levers of power that he had.”

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