Outrage after DeSantis says he’d ‘start slitting throats’ if elected president

<span>Photograph: Scott Morgan/Reuters</span>

Photograph: Scott Morgan/Reuters

Rightwing Florida governor and 2024 presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis was widely condemned after he said that if elected to the White House, he would “start slitting throats” in the federal bureaucracy on his first day in power.

Related: Weak, small and reckless: how Ron DeSantis, Republican Napoleon, met his Waterloo

The president of the National Treasury Employees Union, Tony Reardon, called the hardline Republican’s comment “repulsive and unworthy of the presidential campaign trail”.

The president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), Everett Kelley, said: “Governor DeSantis’ threat to ‘start slitting throats’ of federal employees is dangerous, disgusting, disgraceful and disqualifying.”

Among commentators, the columnist Max Boot called DeSantis’s words “deranged” while Bill Kristol, founder of the Bulwark, a conservative site, said the governor was “making a bold play to dominate the maniacal psychopath lane in the Republican primary”.

DeSantis is a clear second in the Republican primary but more than 30 points behind Donald Trump in most averages, notwithstanding the former president’s proliferating legal jeopardy including 78 criminal charges.

On Friday a major poll by the New York Times and Siena College in the first state to vote, Iowa, put DeSantis 24 points behind.

DeSantis is widely seen to be trying to reset his campaign, having fired staffers including a conservative writer who created a video ad containing a Nazi symbol.

But the governor has not noticeably retooled his hard-right rhetoric.

DeSantis made his comment about slitting throats at an event in the second state to vote, New Hampshire, last Sunday.

“On bureaucracy, you know, we’re going to have all these deep state people, you know, we’re going to start slitting throats on day one and be ready to go,” DeSantis said. “You’re going to see a huge, huge outcry because Washington wants to protect its own.”

Complaints about the so-called deep state – notionally an embedded government of officials and bureaucrats Republicans claim exists to thwart their agenda – is a common feature of far-right campaigns, from Trump down.

Should he return to power, Trump is widely reported to be planning an administrative cull of the federal bureaucracy, seeking to instal loyalists as part of a process his close ally Steve Bannon has long called the “deconstruction of the administrative state”.

DeSantis has used his “slitting throats” line before, last week telling the rightwing columnist John Solomon he wanted to appoint a defense secretary who would “slit some throats” and be “very firm, very strong”.

Condemning DeSantis’s remarks, Kelley, the president of the AFGE, said: “Federal employees – over a third of whom are veterans now wearing their second uniform in service to their country – have dedicated their lives to serving their fellow Americans.

“They support our military, provide healthcare to our nation’s veterans, enforce our laws, safeguard our communities, deliver benefits to America’s most vulnerable citizens, keep our skies safe for air travel, protect human health and our environment, and much more.

“These public servants deserve respect and commendation from our nation’s leaders. No federal employee should face death threats from anyone, least of all from someone seeking to lead the US government. Governor DeSantis must retract his irresponsible statement.”

There seemed little chance of that, from a candidate who has made harsh rhetoric and confrontational poses cornerstones of a campaign nonetheless failing to outflank Trump on the right.

In Florida, Daniel Uhlfelder, a former Democratic candidate for state attorney general, pointed to controversies over DeSantis’s past when he said: “This guy started his legal career at Guantánamo Bay.”

As a US navy lawyer, DeSantis was posted to the US facility on the coast of Cuba during the wars after 9/11. He has angrily denied being present at torture sessions, calling one former inmate’s claims “totally, totally BS”.

In Congress on Thursday, the Virginia Democratic senator Mark Warner said “inflammatory, violent language” like that used by DeSantis in New Hampshire “can lead to very real, very dangerous consequences”.

Kelley of the AFGE agreed, linking DeSantis’s violent imagery to deadly far-right violence.

Related: Ron DeSantis in Guantánamo: how questions about his past haunt the Florida governor

“We’ve seen too often in recent years – from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to the sacking of the [US] Capitol on January 6 2021 – that violent anti-government rhetoric from politicians has deadly consequences.”

In Oklahoma City, 168 people including 19 children were killed when a bomb planted by the rightwing extremist Timothy McVeigh destroyed a federal building. More than 500 people were injured.

Nine deaths have been linked to the attack on the Capitol, in which Trump supporters sought to overturn his election defeat by Joe Biden. More than a thousand people have been charged in relation to the riot, Trump among them after being indicted by the special counsel Jack Smith this week.

Everett said: “Any candidate who positions themselves within that shameful tradition has no place in public office.”

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