In Florida’s Republican primary for governor, Adam Putnam has an early lead in the polls, but he doesn’t have the endorsement of President Donald Trump.
And so, in a Thursday evening debate, the state’s agricultural commissioner used some rhetorical sleight of hand to make it sound as if he had never been a Trump critic.
Fox News’ Bret Baier — who hosted the nationally televised debate with colleague Martha MacCallum — noted that in 2016, Putnam used the words “vile,” “obscene,” and “dishonorable” to describe then-candidate Trump’s behavior. Does Trump, Baier asked Putnam, “deserve some of the blame, as his critics suggest, in setting the tone” at a time of political incivility?
“I did not call the president those things, and I support the president,” Putnam began, seeming to choose his words carefully, as Trump was not yet president at the time of the remarks.
Baier tried to interject — candidate Trump, he emphasized — but Putnam talked over him. “The president did not set the tone that the Democrats are trying to blame him for,” Putnam continued, before putting the onus on a Democratic lawmaker who has come under fire for encouraging the recent angry confrontations with Trump administration figures. “They ought to look at some of the things that Maxine Waters has said over the years, not just recently.”
The 2016 comments in question came on two occasions during which Putnam was quoted as speaking about Trump in a disapproving context.
When Trump attacked the parents of a Muslim Army captain who was killed in Iraq, Putnam was among those who were disturbed. “Capt. Khan is an American hero,” he said, according to the Miami Herald. “Any effort to say otherwise is abhorrent and dishonorable. It makes me question how badly [Trump] wants to win. He keeps running his mouth about the most ridiculous things and attacking a family who has sacrificed so much for the freedoms we all enjoy.” (Putnam did not directly call Trump “dishonorable,” but he did call Trump’s comments “ridiculous.”)
And after the Access Hollywood video of Trump speaking of forcibly grabbing women surfaced in October 2016, Putnam said (as also reported by the Miami Herald): “Even by the base standards of this campaign season, his comments were vile and obscene.”
Was Putnam splitting hairs or parsing words to avoid owning his past criticism of Trump?
“I wasn’t,” he told reporters in the post-debate spin room. “I expect that in a nationally televised debate, quotes that are attributed to me ought to be accurate.”
A Putnam spokesperson declined to say if Putnam is arguing that he was misquoted or if he simply was attempting to dodge a question he didn’t want to answer.
“He was saying he supports the president 100%,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
A Fox News poll last week showed Putnam leading Rep. Ron DeSantis, 32% to 17% among likely Republican primary voters, with a bunch of lesser-known candidates all below 5%. Trump, who reportedly had been urged not to wade deeply into the race after giving an encouraging nod to DeSantis on Twitter last December, issued a clear endorsement the day after the poll landed. His support could make a difference: 39% of voters surveyed by Fox News were undecided.
“I thought that was a typical career politician response,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a DeSantis backer who attended the debate, told BuzzFeed News when asked about Putnam's answer to the Trump question. “A distinction without a difference.”
“In this primary,” Gaetz said, “voters are very loyal to Donald Trump, and when Florida Republican primary voters learn how enthusiastic Donald Trump is about the DeSantis campaign, Ron’s going to shoot up in the polls and there’ll be no looking back.”