DeSantis downplays Trump’s nickname, ‘just as long as you also call me a winner’

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(NEW YORK) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis likened former President Donald Trump’s jabs against him to so much “background noise,” according to excerpts from an upcoming interview with Piers Morgan.

“To me, it’s just background noise,” DeSantis is quoted saying in an account of the sit-down Morgan wrote for The New York Post. “It’s not important for me to be fighting with people on social media.”

DeSantis, a hugely popular and controversial GOP governor considered to be Trump’s closest competitor if he enters the race for president, also took an apparent swipe at Trump’s character.

Speaking with Morgan, DeSantis said politicians should aspire to fewer moral failings.

“You really want to look to people like our Founding Fathers, like what type of character. It’s not saying that you don’t ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think what type of character are you bringing?” DeSantis said to Morgan, according to the excerpts in the Post.

“Somebody who really set the standard is George Washington because he always put the republic over his own personal interest. When we won the American Revolution, Washington surrendered his sword. [King] George III said, ‘He’s the greatest man in the world if he gives up power.’ I think the person is more about how you handle your public duties and the kind of character you bring to that endeavor,” DeSantis added.

Quotes from the interview, which will air Thursday night on Fox Nation, were published in the Post and via several clips from Fox News.

As polls place DeSantis as Trump’s biggest challenger for the Republican nomination, should DeSantis announce a 2024 campaign as expected, the former president has grown increasingly critical of DeSantis and DeSantis’ record.

And while DeSantis had largely been ignoring the attacks — saying last month that “I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans” — he’s become more vocal in directly responding as Trump’s criticisms ramp up.

On Monday, the Florida governor distanced himself from Trump and adult film star Stormy Daniels when asked at a press conference about Trump potentially being indicted in New York City.

“Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just can’t speak to that,” DeSantis told reporters.

Trump is being investigated there over money he paid to Daniels before the 2016 election to stop her from discussing an alleged affair with Trump.

Trump denies wrongdoing and Daniels’ claim of an affair; his attorney has called the money extortion.

At Monday’s press conference, DeSantis went on to criticize the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who is leading the probe. DeSantis accused Bragg of “pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office.” (A spokeswoman for Bragg said in response to DeSantis that “we will not be intimidated by attempts to undermine the justice process, nor will we let baseless accusations deter us from fairly applying the law.”)

DeSantis echoed his view of the investigation when talking with Morgan but said of Trump’s alleged conduct: “The reality is that’s just outside my wheelhouse. I mean, that’s just not something that I can speak to.”

Trump seemingly reacted to DeSantis’ remark on Monday referencing the Daniels controversy with a post on his Truth Social platform, writing that “Ron DeSanctimonious will probably find out about FALSE ACCUSATIONS & FAKE STORIES sometime in the future, as he gets older, wiser, and better known.”

During his sit-down interview with Morgan at the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, when asked about Trump’s escalating criticism of him, someone Trump previously endorsed, DeSantis “chuckled,” Morgan wrote in the Post.

“Things have changed a little bit, I guess. It is what it is,” DeSantis said, noting the shift came after his double-digit reelection last year.

He sought to draw sharp distinctions between him and Trump as leaders, particularly on what he called his “drama-free” executive style.

“The way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board,” he said. “And I think that’s something that’s very important.”

He also brushed off the nicknames from Trump, who favors insulting his rivals.

“I don’t know how to spell the sanctimonious one,” DeSantis said. “I don’t really know what it means, but I kinda like it. It’s long, it’s got a lot of vowels.”

“I mean you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner because that’s what we’ve been able to do in Florida, is put a lot of points on the board and really take this state to the next level,” he said.

The response to COVID-19 was another thing that separated him and Trump, DeSantis said: “I would have fired somebody like [Dr. Anthony] Fauci. I think that he got way too big for his britches.”

In another excerpt, DeSantis projected confidence that he could take on President Joe Biden in a general matchup next year, though neither of them is officially in the race yet.

“If I were to run,” DeSantis said, “I’m running against Biden. Like we [him and Trump] are competing for the Republican, potentially, I get that, but ultimately, you know, the guy I’m gonna focus on is Biden because I think he’s failed the country. I think the country wants a change. I think they want a fresh start and a new direction, and so we’ll be very vocal about that.”

On Wednesday, Trump responded to DeSantis’ interview with Morgan with a post on Truth Social, claiming that he is an “average” governor and “is not working for the people of Florida as he should be, he is too busy chatting with a Ratings Challenged TV Host.”

Despite recent tours of pivotal early-voting states like Iowa and Nevada, DeSantis maintained to Morgan that he’s not made a “final decision” on whether he’ll run in 2024.

However, he has privately indicated to allies that he expects to jump in the race around May or June, sources familiar with the matter previously told ABC News.

“I’ve told people that I’ve got a lot to do over the next few months in Florida,” DeSantis told Morgan. “We’re gonna put a lot of points on the board. And then we’ll see how the dust settles after that, but I can tell you a lot of people realize the country is not going in the right direction and believe that what we’ve been able to do in Florida, if we can apply that nationally, we can get America back on track and back on our foundations.”

DeSantis is scheduled to headline a fundraiser in New Hampshire next month.

ABC News’ Katherine Faulders, Isabella Murray and Will Steakin contributed to this report.

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