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David Kihara

DeSantis cleans up earlier Ukraine comments, calls Putin a ‘war criminal’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has faced increasing attacks from Donald Trump and other Republicans for his comments on Ukraine and his perceived disloyalty to the former president. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sought to clean up his previous comments calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” telling British journalist Piers Morgan instead that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a "war criminal."

DeSantis faced mounting criticism from Republicans over his earlier comments on Ukraine, including from Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and John Cornyn of Texas, who all publicly broke with DeSantis after the governor rejected additional funding for Ukraine. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is considering a 2024 bid, called DeSantis “naïve” over his Ukraine stance.

But during an interview with Morgan set to air this week, DeSantis called Putin a “a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons,” repeating a similar line he had used in early March to describe the Russian leader. Both lines echoed a 2014 quip from then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in which he said, "Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country."

“I think [Putin’s] hostile to the United States, but I think the thing that we’ve seen is he doesn’t have the conventional capability to realize his ambitions,” DeSantis said, according to Fox News. “And so, he’s basically a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons and one of the things we could be doing better is utilizing our own energy resources in the U.S.”

DeSantis, who is widely expected to jump into the 2024 presidential race after Florida's Legislative sessions in May, has faced increasing attacks from Donald Trump and other Republicans for his comments on Ukraine and his perceived disloyalty to the former president, who declared in November that he’s running for president.

Trump supporters have also targeted DeSantis after the governor said he wouldn’t intervene in Trump’s likely indictment in connection with hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels. Under Florida law, DeSantis could intervene in any extradition attempt if it is disputed.

"I’ve got real issues I’ve got to deal with here in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said earlier this week during a press conference. “We’re not getting involved in it in any way.”

His comments to Morgan, however, represent a pivot of sorts for DeSantis, who until this week only mildly pushed back against Trump’s repeated criticism on Truth Social and elsewhere.

In a portion of the Morgan interview, DeSantis said that “you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner” in response to Trump calling the Florida governor “Ron DeSanctimonious.”

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