CNN town hall with Ron DeSantis

By Elise Hammond and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 11:10 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024
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11:05 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

Key takeaways from CNN's town hall with DeSantis in New Hampshire one week before the primary

From CNN's Eric Bradner, Gregory Krieg, Arit John and Daniel Strauss

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned in a CNN town hall Tuesday night in New Hampshire that Republicans are “going to lose” the 2024 election if they nominate former President Donald Trump.

The day after finishing a distant second to Trump – though just ahead of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – in Iowa’s caucuses, the Florida governor fielded questions in New Hampshire at a town hall moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

He used the event to make the case that with a conservative policy record, he would be better able than Haley to consolidate Republican support; and with less personal baggage, he’d be better positioned than Trump to win a general election.

Here are some key takeaways from the event:

  • DeSantis tries a go-everywhere, do-everything strategy: Trump won’t debate his Republican rivals. And, as of Tuesday morning, Haley says she won’t either, unless the former president shows up. That led ABC News to cancel plans for a Thursday night face-off, and it could spell the end of the 2024 GOP primary debates. But DeSantis wanted to make sure New Hampshire voters knew it wasn’t his fault — he had been up for it. “I’m the only candidate that actually agreed to come to New Hampshire to debate,” he said. “I’m the only one who’s not running a basement campaign at this point.” His comments demonstrated how DeSantis is looking for every possible opportunity to break through.
  • DeSantis questions Haley’s ability to unite Republicans: DeSantis offered a simple message about Haley: She cannot unite the GOP and win the nomination. Within that soundbite, though, was some insight into how he views the next stage of this race. It’s a clear appeal to the Never Trump voters who could decide the New Hampshire primary. DeSantis is, in effect, saying that if you do not want to nominate Trump, then he’s the guy people should support.
  • DeSantis loosens up: DeSantis sought to connect with town hall attendees in more personal ways Tuesday night. He talked about growing up in the 1990s and playing baseball — “It was like a holiday from history” that changed on September 11, 2001, he said. He asked a woman who posed a question about mental health if she had any advice. The looser, gentler DeSantis onstage in New Hampshire looked like a much different candidate than the one who entered the presidential race with a reputation as a brawler in Florida.

Read up on more key takeaways from the town hall.

10:58 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

Fact Check: DeSantis on migrants housed in a NYC school  

From CNN’s Tami Luhby 

DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire.
DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire. Will Lanzoni/CNN

Asked about how he would address the issue of undocumented immigrants entering the US, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized New York City officials for shifting asylum seekers to a school for temporary shelter. 

“New York City had to close a school,” he said. “You literally have kids told, ‘Don't go to school,because they commandeered the school to be able to house illegal aliens.” 

Facts First: DeSantis’ comment needs context. New York City Mayor Eric Adams and his administration moved 1,900 asylum seekers from a tent shelter in Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to James Madison High School for one night last week to shield them from a storm. The high school students went to class remotely the following day and then returned to the Brooklyn school the day after that. 

The one-day school closure sparked an outcry from parents and local politicians. Adams and city officials have struggled to handle and house the migrants that are being bused to New York, mainly from Texas, since the spring of 2022.  

The mayor defended his use of the high school on ABC’s GMA3 later that week, saying, “We’ve always used our school buildings during emergencies.” 

10:40 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

Fact Check: DeSantis on Haley’s attack ads

From CNN’s David Wright and Marshall Cohen

DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire.
DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire. Will Lanzoni/CNN

At CNN's town hall Tuesday night, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted his second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of former South Carolina Gov. and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. He beat her despite the fact that, according to him, she only spent money on TV ads that attacked him, giving former President Donald Trump a pass.  

“She spent 100% of her money attacking me, and not one red cent attacking Donald Trump,” DeSantis claimed. “And I faced almost $50 million in total. I got in second and she did not.”  

Facts First: This is mostly true but needs context. Yes, DeSantis was the target of nearly all of the spending by Haley’s campaign and allied groups in Iowa. But they have spent millions of dollars hitting Trump in other states, including in New Hampshire, where she is more competitive in the latest polls.  

The Florida governor’s complaints about Haley’s spending in Iowa are well-founded.  

In the past year, Haley and her allies have devoted significantly more resources to attacking DeSantis instead of Trump. According to data from AdImpact, Haley’s campaign and allied super PACs have spent about $12.5 million on TV ads targeting DeSantis, with at least $9.8 million on ads airing in Iowa.    

But according to AdImpact’s data, Haley and her allies have also spent about $2.9 million in the past year on TV ads criticizing Trump. Virtually all of these ads have aired in New Hampshire, not in Iowa.   

SFA Fund, a super PAC supporting Haley, has spent over $500,000 airing an ad responding to some of Trump’s attacks, saying “one temper tantrum after another, his entire campaign, based on revenge.”   The same group has also spent over $1 million on another ad against Trump, saying, “Why is Donald Trump only attacking Nikki Haley? Because Trump knows Haley's the only one who can beat him.”  

10:39 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

Fact Check: DeSantis' claim about Iranian sanctions

From CNN’s Jennifer Hansler and Kaanita Iyer 

DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire.
DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire. Will Lanzoni/CNN

When answering a voter’s question in tonight's CNN town hall on how he will deal with Iran if elected president, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attempted to contrast himself from President Joe Biden, who DeSantis claimed “relaxed sanctions on Iran.” 

Facts First: This claim needs context. 

The Biden administration has lifted a handful of Iranian sanctions, which they said were removed because of “verified change in status or behavior.” However, Biden has also retained and imposed numerous other sanctions on Iran. The Biden administration has issued waivers to allow Iraq to purchase electricity from Iran – something the Trump administration did as well. 

10:39 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

DeSantis says US is "not a racist country" after Haley says US has "never been a racist country" 

From CNN's Aaron Pellish and Ebony Davis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, on January 16.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, on January 16. Will Lanzoni/CNN

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the United States is “not a racist country” but has “had challenges with how race was viewed” as he responded Tuesday night to comments made by former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who said the US has “never been a racist country.”

The presidential candidate was asked during CNN’s town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, about Haley’s comments from an interview Tuesday morning, in which she responded to a question about the Republican Party being a “racist party” by making a larger point about her view on race relations historically in the US. 

When asked to respond, DeSantis initially did not directly answer the question, instead criticizing diversity, equity and inclusion policies that he says promote unfair racial bias. He went on to say the US “is not a racist country” currently. 

“The US is not a racist country, and we’ve overcome things in our history,” DeSantis said. “You know, I think the Founding Fathers, they established a set of principles that are universal. Now they may not have been universally applied at the time but I think they understood what they were doing,” 

When pressed again by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer to respond to Haley’s comment, DeSantis pointed to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case as an example of the racial discrimination “challenges” in US history. 

 

10:18 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

Fact Check: DeSantis on pro-LGBTQ aid to Bangladesh

From CNN’s Marshall Cohen and Kaanita Iyer 

DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire.
DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire. Will Lanzoni/CNN

When making the case for lower government spending, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed that taxpayer dollars are "going overseas to do things like promote ‘transgenderism’ in Bangladesh."  

Facts First: This needs context. While there have been US Agency for International Development programs supporting LGBTQ rights in Bangladesh, they make up a sliver of the federal agency’s budget. 

The specific USAID program involved in these efforts was launched under the Trump administration in June 2018 and ended in June 2021, and USAID records indicate that the program cost $849,535 over the three years. 

In the 2021 fiscal year, when it ended, USAID spent almost $30 billion, according to the agency. That means the pro-LGBTQ program in Bangladesh was less than 0.003% of the agency’s spending for that year.  

There is at least one additional USAID program supporting LGBTQ rights in Bangladesh, which was launched last year.

In response to CNN’s inquiries, USAID spokespeople wouldn’t provide a figure for the cost of the program, which is set to run for five years. 

10:25 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

Fact Check: DeSantis' claims on Florida and the pandemic 

From CNN’s Daniel Dale 

DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire.
DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall on Tuesday in New Hampshire. Will Lanzoni/CNN

During the CNN town hall on Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized former President Donald Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and accused him of “turning over the government” to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1984 to 2022. He then claimed it was Florida that “dragged this country out of lockdown,” adding, “We made sure schools were open; we made sure businesses were open.”

Facts First: DeSantis’ claim is misleading at best. Before he became a vocal opponent of pandemic restrictions, DeSantis imposed significant restrictions on individuals, businesses and other entities in Florida in March 2020 and April 2020; some of them extended months later. He did then open up the state, with a gradual phased approach, but he did not keep it open from the start.  

DeSantis received criticism in March 2020 for what some critics perceived as a lax approach to the pandemic, which intensified as Florida beaches were packed during Spring Break. But that month and the month following, DeSantis issued a series of major restrictions.

For example, DeSantis:  

  • Closed Florida’s schools, first with a short-term closure in March 2020 and then, in April 2020, with a shutdown through the end of the school year. (In June 2020, he announced a plan for schools to reopen for the next school year that began in August. By October 2020, he was publicly denouncing school closures, calling them a major mistake and saying all the information hadn’t been available that March.)  
  • On March 14, 2020, announced a ban on most visits to nursing homes. (He lifted the ban in September 2020.)  
  • On March 17, 2020, ordered bars and nightclubs to close for 30 days and restaurants to operate at half-capacity. (He later approved a phased reopening plan that took effect in May 2020, then issued an order in September 2020 allowing these establishments to operate at full capacity.)  
  • On March 17, 2020, ordered gatherings on public beaches to be limited to a maximum of 10 people staying at least six feet apart, then, three days later, ordered a shutdown of public beaches in two populous counties, Broward and Palm Beach. (He permitted those counties’ beaches to reopen by the last half of May.)  

10:11 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

DeSantis emphasizes importance of being able to disagree about politics "without hating each other"

From CNN's Elise Hammond

DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday in New Hampshire.
DeSantis participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday in New Hampshire. Will Lanzoni/CNN

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that as a leader, he knows he is going to make decisions not everyone agrees with, but emphasized the importance of civil discourse in politics.

“We have got to start being able to have conversations and disagreeing, without hating each other," he said during Tuesday night's CNN town hall.

The Florida governor was answering a question from Gavan Fink, a student at Dartmouth, who asked how the GOP candidate would advocate for thoughtful policy conversations in a time when politics can be so polarizing.

“I'll fight people that are on the other side, they can fight back. We'll settle that issue. Next issue, maybe I agree with you on that — why would I want to burn a bridge and not be able to work with you?” DeSantis said.

He said he doesn’t take politics personally and he thinks there is more that unites people than divides.

10:14 p.m. ET, January 16, 2024

In pictures: The DeSantis town hall

From CNN's Will Lanzoni

Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis participated in a CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, a day after he finished second in Iowa's GOP caucuses.

See some of the best photos from the event:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the CNN town hall on Tuesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the CNN town hall on Tuesday. Will Lanzoni/CNN

An audience member asks a question during the town hall.
An audience member asks a question during the town hall. Will Lanzoni/CNN

DeSantis answers a question. He sought to differentiate himself from the rest of the GOP field.
DeSantis answers a question. He sought to differentiate himself from the rest of the GOP field. Will Lanzoni/CNN

The town hall was held at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire.
The town hall was held at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. Will Lanzoni/CNN

CNN's Wolf Blitzer hosted the town hall.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer hosted the town hall. Will Lanzoni/CNN

Max Korp, a 14-year-old from Southington, Connecticut, holds a campaign button that DeSantis signed during the town hall.
Max Korp, a 14-year-old from Southington, Connecticut, holds a campaign button that DeSantis signed during the town hall. Will Lanzoni/CNN