By Robert Farley, Eugene Kiely, D’Angelo Gore and Jessica McDonald
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made his presidential candidacy official on May 24, first with a glitch-delayed livestream on Twitter Spaces, followed by an interview on Fox News.
Making his pitch for the Republican nomination, DeSantis leaned heavily into his record as governor of the Sunshine State, and criticism of President Joe Biden. But we found that in some instances, DeSantis presented a distorted or incomplete picture.
- DeSantis said that Florida “eliminated critical race theory,” even though there is little or no evidence that it was being taught in public schools.
- DeSantis blamed “woke ideology” for recent military recruitment struggles, but the Army secretary said a 2022 survey found that “wokeness” was “relatively low on the list of barriers to service.”
- The governor described “global warming” as “not central to the mission” of the military, but Pentagon leaders have warned for years that climate change poses a national security threat.
- DeSantis repeatedly boasted that “Florida’s crime rate is at a 50-year low.” The rate has been declining for decades, and crime experts have cautioned that the 2021 data cannot be compared to prior years while the state transitions to a new method of crime reporting.
- DeSantis suggested that California wants “abortion all the way up till birth” and already allows it “post-birth.” But infanticide is illegal in the state, and a voter-approved ballot measure that guarantees access to abortion doesn’t mention abortions after fetal viability.
- He labeled claims of Florida book bans a “hoax” because “there’s not been a single book banned” in the state. But a nonprofit counted hundreds of books that were removed from Florida schools and libraries to comply with bills DeSantis signed into law.
- DeSantis misleadingly portrayed the risks of climate change by narrowly focusing only on the frequency of hurricanes, ignoring that it will make hurricanes wetter and more intense.
- He boasted that Florida “recently ranked number one in education” — a ranking that DeSantis inherited and is based on both elementary and higher education. The state’s K-12 schools ranked 14th.
DeSantis’ 2024 kickoff got off to a rough start when the Twitter Spaces livestream event crashed, and was delayed nearly a half hour. But the event, hosted by owner Elon Musk and tech entrepreneur David Sacks, eventually got back on track. “I’m here,” DeSantis announced after a restart.
“Well, I am running for president of the United States to lead our great American comeback,” DeSantis said.
The Twitter event was followed by a live interview on Fox News with host Trey Gowdy, a former Republican member of Congress from South Carolina. Below are some of the statements we fact-checked from both public appearances.
On Critical Race Theory
DeSantis said in his Twitter Space announcement that Florida “eliminated critical race theory,” even though there is little or no evidence that it was being taught in public schools.
DeSantis, May 24: On the racial history, we eliminated critical race theory from our K through 12 schools. That was the right thing to do. In other words, we’re not going to take a kid who comes in at six years old and say they’re an oppressor or oppressed based on what their race is. That’s divisive. That’s wrong.
DeSantis is referring to the Individual Freedom Act, which he signed last year. The law doesn’t mention the phrase “critical race theory.” Instead, it bans public school teachers and Florida College System instructors from teaching that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
What is critical race theory? It started as an advanced legal theory taught at Harvard University in the 1980s by law professor Derrick Bell. It accepts that institutional racism exists and needs to be better understood in order to address racial inequality. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Harvard law student at the time who is now a law professor at Columbia University, has been credited with coining the phrase “critical race theory.”
In an opinion piece for the American Bar Association in January 2021, Janel George, a civil rights attorney, described CTR as “a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.” A year later, at her Senate confirmation hearings, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson defined it as “an academic theory that’s at the law school level.”
Most teachers say critical race theory isn’t being taught in K-12 schools. In 2021, the Association of American Educators surveyed more than 1,000 educators and 96% of those surveyed said they were not required to teach critical race theory.
In a 2022 report on state efforts to ban critical race theory in public schools, UCLA education researchers wrote that critical race theory isn’t being taught in K-12 schools. They said the term “critical race theory” has been co-opted by conservative activists who seek “to restrict or ‘ban’ curriculum, lessons, professional development, and district equity and diversity efforts addressing … race, racism, diversity, and inclusion.”
UCLA researchers found that the debate over CRT has played out in nearly 900 school districts with an enrollment of more than 17.7 million students, or 35% of all public school students in the U.S.
Effect of ‘Wokeness’ on Military Recruiting
DeSantis rightly noted that military recruitment has struggled in recent years, but he was wrong to lay blame on concerns about “woke ideology” in the armed services. An Army study of young people in 2022 found the main reason people didn’t want to serve in the military was fear of injury or death.
Concerns about “wokeness in the military” ranked “relatively low on the list of barriers to service,” according to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.
“We will never surrender to the woke mob and we will leave woke ideology in the dust bin of history,” DeSantis said in his Twitter announcement. “Biden’s also politicized the military and caused recruiting to plummet. We will eliminate ideological agendas from our military, focus the military on the core mission, and we will reverse the poor recruiting trends.” DeSantis echoed those comments in his Fox interview later that night.
“There’ll be a new sheriff in town as commander in chief,” DeSantis said of taking over the presidency. “And I think you’ll see recruiting start to get back to where it needs to be, because people don’t want to join a woke military. And I think it’s been really, really problematic.”
Military recruiters have been feeling the pinch for years. The Army missed its Fiscal Year 2022 recruiting goals by 25% or 15,000 soldiers, and military leaders said in April they did not expect to reach their recruiting targets in 2023 either.
“The difficult recruiting landscape we face didn’t happen in a year, and it’s going to take us more than a year to turn this around,” Wormuth said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in April.
For one thing, they are drawing on a smaller pool of eligible applicants. A 2020 Pentagon study found that without a waiver 77% of young Americans would not qualify for military service due to obesity, drug abuse, physical and mental health problems and other issues. That’s 6% higher than in 2017.
“To put it bluntly, I am worried we are now in the early days of a long-term threat to the all-volunteer force. [There is] a small and declining number of Americans who are eligible and interested in military service,” Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2022. Tillis said “every single metric tracking the military recruiting environment is going in the wrong direction.”
In her congressional testimony in April, Wormuth said the Army surveyed 2,400 people between the ages of 16 and 28 to try to identify obstacles to service. “There was, sometimes, a fear of psychological harm, or a fear of leaving friends and family, and then after that it was, sort of, a fear of the Army, somehow putting your life on hold,” Wormuth said.
Culture war issues did not register as significant obstacles to recruitment.
“Concerns about, for example, you know, wokeness in the military or the COVID vaccine mandate, for example, those were relatively low on the list of barriers to service,” Wormuth said.
Global Warming and the Military
DeSantis went on to say that “global warming” and other “matters not central to the mission” are hurting military morale and recruiting.
DeSantis, May 24: But when revered institutions like those in our military are more concerned with matters not central to the mission, whether it’s global warming or gender ideology and pronouns, morale declines and recruiting suffers.
But contrary to DeSantis’ assessment that global warming is not a central mission of the military, Pentagon leaders have warned for years that climate change poses a national security threat.
In a report released in October 2014, the Pentagon wrote that “Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security,” and that it “will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions.”
“Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” the report stated. “They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”
The report calls climate change a “threat multiplier,” meaning it “has the potential to exacerbate many of
the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism.”
In written testimony obtained by Pro Publica and provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee after his confirmation hearing in January 2017, Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, James Mattis, said: “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”
“I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation,” Mattis said. “I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”
Mark Esper, a Trump nominee who succeeded Mattis as secretary of defense, testified before a House committee in February 2020 that he did not believe climate change was “a threat to our national security as I’ve traditionally defined it.” But, he said, “I do believe it is a challenge for our military installations that are confronted with the impact of climate change.”
At that same hearing, Gen. Mark Milley, Trump’s selection as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that climate change “is probably going to result in destabilization, with resource depletion, water and things like that. You’re gonna see things like increases in diseases. There are a lot of second and third order effects. And does it impact on U.S. national security? Yes it does.”
Florida Crime Rate
During his Twitter and Fox interviews, DeSantis repeatedly boasted that “Florida’s crime rate is at a 50-year low.” But experts caution not to read too much into the 2021 data, because there was a significant switch that year in the way data was reported, and much of Florida’s law enforcement community had not switched to the new reporting method.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida’s overall crime rate — which includes violent and property crimes — was 1,952.3 crimes per 100,000 residents, a roughly 9.5% drop from the rate in 2020. (DeSantis took office in January 2019.)
That 2021 rate was the lowest going back to 1971, which is as far back as the state reports the statistic. So that makes it the lowest total crime rate in at least the last 50 years, as DeSantis said.
But the rate has been steadily declining for three decades. In fact, the state has achieved the lowest crime rate on record in every year since 2008, including DeSantis’ first two years in office.
Data experts also caution there is a large caveat with the 2021 data that makes comparisons to previous years precarious. For 2021, the FBI switched to a new method of crime data reporting, using an “incident-based” system instead of a “summary-based” one in which only the most egregious offenses in an incident are reported, even when multiple crimes may have been committed.
In Florida, 239 law enforcement agencies representing 57.5% of the state’s population submitted data using the old, summary-based crime statistics in 2021. In addition, 29 law enforcement agencies had transitioned to incident-based crime reporting, and another 140 were in the process of transitioning.
FDLE says the new incident-based reporting method will provide “more robust and dynamic crime reporting.” But until data is collected uniformly, comparisons to previous years may be skewed.
“I would say these are provisional data and should be treated with some caution,” Richard B. Rosenfeld, a criminologist and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told the Tampa Bay Times in December.
“The drastic differences in numbers of agencies reporting, and the different way that crime data is recorded, means that comparing 2021 data to earlier years is problematic,” Lyndsay Boggess, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, told PolitiFact. “Even 2020 is challenging and potentially unreliable given the pandemic, quarantine, and shifts in peoples’ behaviors.
In the Gowdy interview, DeSantis said he is concerned about a “Democratic administration, with a trifecta, trying to nationalize abortion all the way up until birth,” which he called “a violation of what states like Florida have done to protect life.”
As we’ve written, House Democrats did pass the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021, which would prevent state prohibitions on abortion after fetal viability in cases where the life or health of the patient is at risk. Some Republicans have claimed or suggested the bill would allow abortion at any point in a pregnancy and for any reason — but some Democrats have countered that is not what they support nor the intent of the bill.
It’s already very rare for abortions to be performed late into a pregnancy. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that 93.1% of abortions were performed at or before 13 weeks of gestation and less than 1% were performed at or after 21 weeks.
DeSantis later called out California specifically, saying: “They want to have abortion all the way up till birth. I think they actually allow it post-birth, if you can believe that, which I think is truly horrific.”
To start, California does not allow abortions “post-birth,” which is known as infanticide. “That’s just not true,” Mary Ziegler, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis, said of the claim. “That’s homicide in California,” she told us in a phone interview.
In addition, the California Health and Safety Code, which contains relevant state statutes, clearly states, “The rights to medical treatment of an infant prematurely born alive in the course of an abortion shall be the same as the rights of an infant of similar medical status prematurely born spontaneously.”
In 2022, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 2223, legislation that protects parents from being investigated or prosecuted if they lose or choose to end a pregnancy. As we’ve also written, there was some concern about the original language of the bill, which said: “Notwithstanding any other law, a person shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability or penalty, or otherwise deprived of their rights, based on their actions or omissions with respect to their pregnancy or actual, potential, or alleged pregnancy outcome, including miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion, or perinatal death.”
The state’s Assembly Judiciary Committee later suggested revising the language to make it clear that the reference to “perinatal death” — which can refer to fetal deaths that occur during a pregnancy or deaths within days or weeks of a birth — “is intended to be the consequence of a pregnancy complication.” Without that clarification, the committee said, “the bill could be interpreted to immunize a pregnant person from all criminal penalties for all pregnancy outcomes, including the death of a newborn for any reason during the ‘perinatal’ period after birth, including a cause of death which is not attributable to pregnancy complications, which clearly is not the author’s intent.”
The line was changed to read “perinatal death due to causes that occurred in utero,” which is the version that became law. After the change, the California Catholic Conference, which had objected to the original language, removed its opposition to the measure and remained neutral on the bill.
Also, California law already places restrictions on abortions that occur after fetal viability — contrary to the DeSantis claim that the state wants abortion “way up till birth.”
In 2022, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, California voters approved Proposition 1, an amendment to the state constitution that guarantees access to abortion procedures and contraceptives.
But the language of the amendment doesn’t specify when abortions may occur, Ziegler told us. “It’s silent on the subject” of viability, she said, explaining that constitutional amendments “tend to be broad and abstract,” rather than going into specific details.
It “doesn’t mean you can or cannot have a post-viability abortion,” she said of the amendment. That would have to be “tested in court,” which she noted has not happened.
DeSantis played down the fact that hundreds of books have been removed from Florida schools and libraries to comply with legislation that he has signed into law as governor.
“So the whole book ban thing is a hoax,” he told his Twitter audience. “There’s not been a single book banned in the state of Florida. You can go buy or use whatever book you want.”
But PEN America, a nonprofit promoting “free expression” that has been tracking book removals across the country, has documented hundreds of bans by Florida school districts between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2022.
In an April report, PEN America wrote: “In Florida, for example, a trio of laws enacted this school year bar instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade (HB 1557), prohibit educators from discussing advantages or disadvantages based on race (HB 7), and mandate that schools must catalog every book on their shelves, including those found in classroom libraries (HB 1467). Due to the lack of clear guidance, these three laws have each led teachers, media specialists, and school administrators to proactively remove books from shelves, in the absence of any specific challenges. In October 2022, the Florida Board of Education also passed new rules that go beyond the language in the laws, to stipulate that teachers found in violation of these bills could have their professional teaching certification revoked.”
The group said it counted at least 357 book bans throughout the state.
In a March press release purportedly “exposing the book ban hoax,” the governor’s office even acknowledged that “[s]chool districts are required to report the number of books removed from schools based on legislation passed in 2022,” and noted that about two dozen districts had “reported removing materials” so far.
In his first interview following his announcement, DeSantis misleadingly denied the very real risks of climate change by narrowly focusing on a single metric: hurricane frequency.
“They have not increased in number,” DeSantis said of hurricanes, when Fox News host Trey Gowdy asked DeSantis about his “view” on climate change, and the government’s role in addressing it. “People try to say when we had Ian that it was because of climate change. But if you look at the first 60 years, from 1900 to 1960, we had more major hurricanes hit Florida than in the 60 years since then.”
“This is something that’s a fact of life in the Sunshine State,” he continued. “I’ve always rejected the politicization of the weather.”
Exactly how climate change affects hurricanes is complicated, but scientists generally agree that hotter temperatures will make hurricanes wetter and more intense.
“Further warming will likely lead to an increased proportion of [tropical cyclones] of higher severity (category 4 & 5) with more damaging wind speeds, higher storm inundation, and more extreme rainfall rates,” a 2021 review concluded.
Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that occur in the Atlantic Ocean, among other bodies of water.
Whether a warming world will lead to more or fewer hurricanes is less clear — the bulk of the evidence points to fewer total hurricanes, although this remains uncertain.
Regardless of any specific effects on the storms, climate change-caused sea level rise means the hurricanes that do hit will be more likely to have higher storm surges.
As for DeSantis’ straw man claim about last year’s Hurricane Ian, he’s right that it’s incorrect to say that the hurricane was caused by climate change. But rather than causing events, climate change can make them more likely or worse.
Lawrence Berkeley National Lab climate scientist Michael Wehner and colleagues performed a rapid attribution analysis at the time of Hurricane Ian, concluding that climate change increased rainfall “by over 10%.” Wehner has since updated the estimate, he said during a lecture in March, and his group now estimates that climate change increased Hurricane Ian’s extreme rainfall by nearly 18%.
Of course, hurricanes are not the only concern when it comes to climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, released in March, human-caused climate change “is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” leading to “widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people.”
Florida’s Education Ranking
During his Twitter Spaces event, DeSantis said Florida “recently ranked number one in education” — a ranking that requires some context.
It’s true that U.S. News & World Report earlier this month ranked Florida No. 1 in overall education, which is based on both elementary and higher education. Florida has held the top spot for seven years — so it predates DeSantis, who took office in 2019.
Also, while Florida ranked No. 1 in higher education and overall education, the state’s K-12 schools ranked 14th.
The Sunshine State’s eighth-grade students ranked 32nd in math proficiency and 21st in reading proficiency, the news magazine said, citing the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.
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