TALLAHASSEE— Gov. Ron DeSantis shaped his political identity in Congress by taking on the FBI and criticizing its Russia investigation.
But as Florida governor, not only has DeSantis toned down the FBI bashing, he’s even doing the bureau’s bidding. The governor signed a non-disclosure agreement with the bureau in exchange for a briefing Friday on Russian hacking into voter systems in two Florida counties — a decision one fellow Republican described as complicity in a cover-up.
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The DeSantis evolution has exposed the new governor to rare criticism from other Republicans, county election supervisors and government-transparency advocates who say his decision to sign the non-disclosure agreement — and keep information from the voting public— hurts his political brand and erodes trust in the election systems of the nation’s biggest swing state.
“It was definitely a misstep,” said Mike Bennett, the conservative Republican election supervisor of Manatee County.
“Why sign an NDA? Why would he do that? Why then go out there and have a press conference and say, ‘I’ve got a secret. I’ve got a secret! I’ve got a secret! And I ain’t gonna tell you,’” Bennett said. “He should demand the FBI tell us all what happened, where it happened, and how to avoid this in the future.”
But, Bennett like other Republicans, said he is otherwise happy with the governor’s performance. Elected last year, DeSantis has won broad acclaim for managing a successful first legislative session, which ended earlier this month with few internal disputes and a string of conservative victories.
Then came the meeting with the FBI on May 10.
Even DeSantis was uncomfortable with the situation he was in after learning the identity of the two counties from the FBI. He decided not to keep the meeting quiet, holding a Tuesday press conference to disclose that the bureau had given him some information. By Wednesday, he was expressing regret that the identity of the two counties was kept secret.
“It’s over-classified,” DeSantis told reporters on Wednesday in Coral Gables.
When asked how he squared his FBI-bashing in Congress with his decision to sign the non-disclosure agreement, DeSantis said it was born of necessity.
“I share the frustration of your question. But my situation is if I didn’t sign that, I wouldn’t have gotten any briefing. And I would have gotten even less,” DeSantis said. When he learned from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that Florida counties had been hacked, his administration asked for more information but was stonewalled.
“We immediately called the FBI — we thought it was only one county at the time — and said, ‘Hey, which Florida county?’” DeSantis said. The FBI’s reply, he said, was, “We won’t tell you. We can’t tell you. We can’t do it.”
With the benefit of hindsight, some Republicans question if DeSantis was too quick to bend to the bureau’s request. They said the old DeSantis was willing to stand up to the agency and make a scene, which he repeatedly did in the U.S. House, calling for an end to Mueller’s probe of President Donald Trump. The president called DeSantis one of his ‘warriors’ because of the way the congressman attacked federal investigators.
“As a guy who forged his political identity around the failures of the FBI, to now essentially [be] appearing to be party to the cover-up, it isn’t beneficial to him,” said one top Republican affiliated with Trump.
Alan Hays, election supervisor in Lake County and a former Florida senator, said he wouldn’t question DeSantis’ decision to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But the conservative Republican made clear he wasn’t pleased with the FBI’s secrecy.
“It’s a big mystery. I don’t know any supervisor who is happy with the FBI,” Hays said. “All it does is undermine the confidence of the public in our system. And that’s just playing into the hands of the perpetrators of the whole scheme.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, also has refused to disclose details of the Russian hacking. His state counterpart, Sen. Rick Scott, was briefed Wednesday afternoon by the FBI and urged the agency to disclose more information.
In last year’s election, Scott criticized his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, for saying that Russians “penetrated” some voter registration systems and were “in the records.” Nelson said he was forbidden to disclose more because the information was classified. He stopped answering questions from reporters to clarify his remarks. Scott defeated Nelson in November.
In Florida’s tight-knit community of election supervisors, there’s broad suspicion that the two affected counties are small, with tiny staffs and relatively little computer savvy.
The FBI has claimed that only voter registration systems in the unnamed counties were affected and that separate vote-tabulation systems weren’t compromised. The agency also has said that the hack was caught and stopped.
According to DeSantis, the counties became vulnerable after falling victim to a spearphishing attack, in which the hackers gained access to voter-registration databases by sending out emails that appeared to be from a security vendor but instead were laden with malware that unsuspecting employees downloaded.
But since so much is known of the 2016 attacks, it’s not clear why the names of the counties are still classified or why the FBI has forced the governor and members of his administration to sign NDAs.
The use of such agreements is routine, according to the FBI. Non-disclosure agreements are required when an individual is “granted access to sensitive or classified information,” a bureau spokesperson said. “The nondisclosure agreement prohibits confirming or repeating classified information to unauthorized individuals.”
However, a spokesperson for DeSantis called the move unprecedented, and government transparency advocates said they haven’t heard of a Florida governor being required to make a legal promise to keep quiet in return for basic information about an investigation.
POLITICO has asked for a copy of the non-disclosure agreement and any written material that might have been shown to DeSantis. DeSantis’ office has said the governor was briefed verbally and no written material — including a copy of the non-disclosure agreement — exists.
One of DeSantis’s closest allies, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, said he hadn’t spoken to DeSantis about the FBI agreement, nor has he learned the identities of the two counties. The agency’s secrecy is troubling, he said.
On Wednesday, Gaetz criticized the Department of Defense for knowing too little about the Russian military’s attack in Florida after the agency gave a closed-door classified briefing to him and fellow members of the Armed Services Committee. Gaetz said the military should know more about what the Russian military has done in his home state.
“I’m eager to learn why transparency wouldn’t be the best antidote to identify and solve the problems that are facing the nation with regard to Russian election interference,” Gaetz said.
Gary Fineout contributed to this report.