Election 2024

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Indy Q&A: Cuccinelli, DHS leader under Trump, says he sees more 2024 potential in DeSantis

Jannelle Calderon
Jannelle Calderon
Election 2024

Although Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to officially throw his hat in the ring for a 2024 presidential run, ally Ken Cuccinelli, a former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official under President Donald Trump, took it on himself to meet with voters in key states to garner support for DeSantis. 

Cuccinelli, founder of the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, took a recent two-week tour through the four early presidential primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — as speculation has intensified in recent weeks that DeSantis will run. Despite previously working for Trump, Cuccinelli said he is rooting for DeSantis because he believes he has “best chance to win” the election as he has gained popularity in Florida and across the nation, and has “the skills to do the most in the presidency.” 

Florida law says state officeholders must resign their positions if they run for a federal office. But Cuccinelli said the Florida Legislature, which has a Republican supermajority, will likely amend or repeal that law. 

One of DeSantis’ biggest talking points is immigration. As governor he recently proposed banning driver’s licenses for people who are undocumented, whereas Nevada for a decade has made “driver authorization cards” available to noncitizens who pass a driver’s test and obtain insurance in an effort to prevent hit and runs. Cuccinelli said DeSantis has stated that refusing driver’s licenses to undocumented people would “dissuade illegal immigration.”  

Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general who also led the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency and was acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, sat down with The Nevada Independent during his visit to Nevada on Wednesday to discuss DeSantis’ approach to immigration and more. The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Q: Why are you vouching for DeSantis to run for president? 

The natural first part of that question is: I worked for Trump, why not stay with Trump? And I'm proud of the work we did. I was honored to work in the homeland security arena. And I think we did a good job. We could have done better. And we could have done better with more consistent management, with more consistent personnel picks. 

When you look at what DeSantis has done in the administration of the largest swing state in the country — third largest state in them all — his personnel are in alignment with his goals that he told the voters he was going to pursue. And it's all well-thought out, well-prepared and well-executed. And in the Trump administration we were going in the right direction, but we were often falling forward rather than marching forward. 

DeSantis is really much more squared away, and I see a lot more opportunity for America to achieve a lot more under his leadership. Plus, eight years instead of four — that's a big deal. 

I think age will matter more when he's going up against Joe Biden, who shuffles around and literally shows his age. It is time to move on. Joe Biden won in 2020 hiding in his basement. You can't do that in '24. 

My prediction for 2024 is, if Ron DeSantis is the nominee, the Biden team will not debate him; they will find a reason not to debate because he'll be humiliated. And it's something I think that they would rather just take the heat for than actually go through. DeSantis has the discipline to let [Biden] stumble. 

I mean, how did President Trump lose the first debate to Joe Biden? The answer is he wouldn't let Joe Biden talk. He lacked the self-discipline in the preparation to address the debate on the terms that would have been most favorable. It's not rocket science. But it is a lot of preparation and a lot of self-discipline. Those are DeSantis' strengths; they’re not Trump's. 

Q: What advice would you give DeSantis on how to respond to President Trump’s various insults (such as Ron DeSanctimonius)?

Well, the way he's been doing it has been very untraditional, very indirect. No direct engagement by name and I would advise him to keep doing that. It's been very effective. 

For example, when the president tried to attack DeSantis on COVID, of all things, DeSantis just — an ex-baseball player — said “look at the scoreboard.”

If you want to hold that up to what Trump did on COVID, it starts to look more dramatically contrasting in favor of the governor. But he didn't do that. He just pointed out, “This is what we did in Florida. People in Florida appreciated enough to re-elect me overwhelmingly.”

Q: Why do you think Trump was unable to complete the border wall? What do you think DeSantis would do differently to bring that project to life?

So I'll be a little technical here, partly because I'm a lawyer and partly because I was the deputy secretary. Completing the border wall, just to be clear, doesn't mean 2,000 miles of wall. We don't need the whole border walled off. But there are another 700 priority miles that do need it. 

That's why those coattails are so important. I mean, that is the easiest way to accomplish that, is budget wise. All you need are majorities to do that. Majorities that will go with you. So 51 in the Senate isn't enough. It is on the Democrat side, not on the Republican side, we need like 53. And DeSantis can get us there in the Senate. Whereas, I'm not sure we could get the majority if Trump is at the top of the ticket. 

And when you talk about completing 700 more miles of border wall, you're talking about billions of dollars and years of work. That stick-to-it-iveness and execution is where the governor has shined. And we patched it together, sort of, in the Trump administration, getting money out of the Department of Defense and other things, but I think DeSantis will do that in a more traditional way with the coalitions necessary to make it work. The fact of the matter is, Joe Biden's open borders policies have really exposed why that's a bad path, especially in the communities along the border. 

Q: Nevada is in the top 10 most popular destinations for immigrants. How would DeSantis win over voters with immigrant backgrounds or family members with these strict immigration policies? 

So there's a lot of that in Florida, right? So he's navigated that. And in Florida, the communities are more organized and outspoken than in any other state I can think of. 

So he's already proven very effective at navigating that. It's working with every community and matching their desires with his political policy goals. And he's just been really good at that. It's part of the turnaround of votes from 2018 to 2022. I think any Republican nominee needs to be effective. And he's already there. He's done a better job of that than anybody else. 

Trump improved with Hispanic voters and Black voters. Though, on the Black voter front, it went from very little to a little more than very little and it doesn't change races. The Hispanic vote shift does change races. And it can flip states and Nevada being one of them. It's also critical in Florida, not to the same proportion as Nevada. I think making his tough-on-illegal-immigration policies and making them and the benefits of them real to the people who live in his state is the kind of messaging he can take nationwide. And the things you run on as a presidential candidate need to be relevant to people's lives. And they need to be forward looking. 

E-Verify is a system used to check whether workers are legally present in the U.S. and eligible to work. DeSantis proposes making its use mandatory. What do you think it will take to get more employers on board with actually using this system? Would Gov. DeSantis want to take this concept national if elected president?

The amount and readily availability of welfare is keeping Americans on the couch. 

I would say that the governor's approach to not just welfare forever for everyone, and shrinking that as a budget necessity, combined with E-Verify, for instance, and other rule of law type policies should go hand-in-hand. And in some places, wages will go up and that costs businesses more, and we pay for that as consumers. But that's how the people at the poorest end of our economic scale improve their standard of living. I don't think that's something to be lamented. 

One of the things that we don't do as well as we should in the Republican Party is point out how good our policies are for American poor people. And this is an example where — of course, we want businesses to thrive — but we want them to be getting those people off the couch. And frankly, I'd like a president and a Congress that's ratcheting down that welfare spigot. We're bankrupt, if anybody’s noticed yet. But it is an impediment to getting people into the workforce.

I would expect him to [take the concept of E-Verify nationally] because he's supported [it] in Florida. 

Even Sen. Mitt Romney has proposed legislation to make E-Verify permanent. So this has broad appeal within the GOP. And that's the first place the governor's gonna have to earn support. 

Q: What are your general thoughts about Trump’s immigration policies? How do they compare to DeSantis' immigration policy?

DeSantis hasn't spelled out all of his [policies]. He's been very tough on illegal immigration. And when you look at something like E-Verify, Trump did not pursue that. He didn't support, as far as I know, Romney's bill to even make E-Verify permanent. So in that sense, DeSantis is being a little bit tougher on illegal immigration. 

COVID aside, there really weren't any changes to legal immigration under Trump. And I haven't yet heard the governor speak to that subject on the legal side. 

Before I was deputy secretary, I ran the legal immigration agency, USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services]. And the Trump White House was very resistant to virtually any changes. They had their legislation that was modeled in Australia, but it was always almost ready. I'm not sure they ever got it proposed. That's the kind of spinning the wheels in the mud you won't get from president DeSantis.


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