After a trying week for his national political ambitions, Gov. Ron DeSantis is headed abroad this week for a series of visits to allied nations – an opportunity for the Florida Republican to step onto the international stage for the first time as a likely presidential contender.
The official purpose behind DeSantis’ globetrotting is for an “international trade mission,” according to his office. DeSantis, as well as first lady Casey DeSantis and two representatives from his administration, will travel to Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom to meet with officials and chat up potential business partnerships.
“This trade mission will give us the opportunity to strengthen economic relationships and continue to demonstrate Florida’s position as an economic leader,” the governor said in a news release Thursday.
While in Israel, DeSantis will also keynote an event hosted by The Jerusalem Post and the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. The appearance there comes at a time of increased tension between the US and its Middle East ally over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul proposal.
The trip will spotlight DeSantis’ foreign policy credentials as he inches toward a White House bid. DeSantis rose to the national consciousness as a pandemic contrarian and by leading his state through a series of cultural fights, but his views on world affairs had been less scrutinized until recently, when the governor offered a series of contradicting opinions on the war in Ukraine.
DeSantis’ remark that support for Ukraine was not of “vital” national interest set off alarm bells among hawkish Republicans in Congress before the governor backtracked in an interview with Piers Morgan and called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal. He further obscured his position a few days later by dismissing the war as a fight over the “borderlands.”
Over his nearly six years as a congressman in Washington, DeSantis, a former Navy lawyer stationed in both Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he was often critical of President Barack Obama’s overseas agenda. As governor, he has urged hard-line policies against communist governments in Cuba and China, most recently banning TikTok on state government devices and pushing legislation that would make it illegal for Chinese nationals to buy property in Florida.
And even as he is scheduled to meet with allies to encourage business with his state, DeSantis on Friday poked fun at a United Nations committee resolution that criticized an anti-riot law he championed as governor.
“I wear that criticism as a badge of honor,” he said at an event hosted by The Heritage Foundation outside Washington.
DeSantis’ trip abroad marks the first time he has left US soil on official business since the early days of his first term as governor in 2019, when he visited Israel along with the state’s elected cabinet members. As an elected official, DeSantis has not visited a foreign country other than Israel.
DeSantis’ predecessor, now-US Sen. Rick Scott, embarked on more than a dozen trade missions during his tenure as governor. DeSantis, though, has focused largely on issues at home while also dealing with a coronavirus outbreak that significantly restricted travel for much of his first term.
As he now prepares for his first visits to Europe and East Asia as governor, DeSantis is leaving behind the most difficult stretch so far of the unofficial rollout of his expected presidential campaign, as well as challenges in his home state that have caused critics to raise questions about his extensive recent travel.
Some key donors have publicly expressed reservations about DeSantis’ chances in a primary against Donald Trump, who continues to hammer his onetime ally on social media. The former president last week upstaged DeSantis’ return to Capitol Hill to seek support from within the chamber he once served in by rolling out a string of congressional endorsements – including a handful from Florida lawmakers. Eleven Florida Republicans have endorsed Trump over DeSantis so far – including seven last week.
DeSantis has also faced scrutiny for his response this month to torrential storms – described as a 1-in-1,000-year rainfall event – that left Fort Lauderdale and surrounding communities underwater. Amid the severe flooding, DeSantis took his book tour to Ohio and spoke at a fundraiser for New Hampshire Republicans – returning to Florida in between trips for a late-night, closed-door signing of a six-week abortion ban – and said little publicly about the storms.
“Fort Lauderdale is under water and DeSantis is campaigning in Ohio right now instead of taking care of the people suffering in his state,” Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, tweeted earlier this month.
The storms also caused gasoline shortages throughout South Florida, leading the state’s US senators, both Republicans, to criticize the response, though without directly calling out DeSantis. Sen. Marco Rubio called the situation “crazy,” adding, “They gotta get this thing fixed.”
“Florida families shouldn’t have uncertainty about their next tank of gas. Every resource available should be deployed to fix this,” Scott tweeted.
Asked about the comments from Florida’s senators, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin told CNN that “the state emergency response apparatus has been at work since the flooding occurred and continues in full swing responding to the needs of the localities as they are communicated to us. The governor issued a state of emergency the day after the flooding occurred.”
On Saturday, DeSantis requested a major disaster declaration from the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, in his state’s capital of Tallahassee, the Florida Legislature is nearing the end of a 60-day session where GOP lawmakers have been tasked with helping DeSantis rack up policy victories before he launches a campaign for president. He has already signed several of those bills, including the abortion ban, a measure to allow Floridians to carry concealed guns in public and an overhaul of the state’s tort laws.
With DeSantis mostly on the road, though, several of his priorities appear to have stalled in the GOP-controlled legislature. A bill that would make it easier to sue media outlets for libel hasn’t moved in weeks. State lawmakers have also balked at a provision in DeSantis’ immigration package that would eliminate in-state tuition for undocumented residents.
US Rep. Greg Steube, who previously served in the Florida Senate and endorsed Trump last week, accused state lawmakers on Friday of “carrying the water for an unannounced presidential campaign.”
“Your constituents voted you into those positions to represent them, not to kowtow to the presidential ambitions of a Governor!” the GOP lawmaker tweeted. “Be strong and courageous, the people of Florida will thank you.”
Appearing unfazed by the chatter, DeSantis on Friday rattled off his conservative victories as governor before a friendly audience at the Heritage Foundation event.
DeSantis also looked briefly ahead to the 2024 race, laying out what was at stake in the next presidential election and suggesting the country needed a “determined and disciplined chief executive to root out politicization and corruption throughout the old executive branch” – a likely jab at the distracted and often chaotic presidency of Trump.
“We need to reject the pessimism that is in the air about our country’s future,” DeSantis said. “Because at the end of the day, decline is a choice, success is attainable and freedom is worth fighting for.”