GOP presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis became the first 2024 contender to enter the South Carolina primary Tuesday and defended rival and Republican front-runner former President Donald Trump during a campaign stop in the Palmetto State. 

Flanked by supporters, including state legislators who have endorsed his bid, DeSantis signed his filing documents during a stop at the South Carolina Republican Party headquarters in Columbia, making him the first major party presidential candidate officially on the ballot for the first-in-the-South contest.

During a press conference afterward at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit founded by retired military leaders, DeSantis was asked by a reporter about breaking news that Trump stated on Truth Social earlier Tuesday that he received a letter from special counsel Jack Smith informing him he is the target of a Jan. 6 grand jury investigation.

“Do you believe that Trump bears any responsibility for what happened on Jan. 6?” a reporter asked. 

DESANTIS TO UNVEIL PLAN TO ‘RIP’ WOKENESS ‘OUT OF THE MILITARY’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rolls out his military policy proposal during an event for his 2024 presidential campaign Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in West Columbia, S.C.  (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

“So, I have not seen that. Someone had told me something coming in. And, look, here’s the thing. Criminal charges – it’s not just because you may have done something wrong, it’s did you behave criminally? And I think what we’ve seen in this country is an attempt to criminalize politics and to try to criminalize differences,” DeSantis said. 

“So, I don’t know what was all about that. But I do know that we look at institutions, unfortunately, like our own FBI and Department of Justice, and we’ve seen the politicization of those institutions. We’ve seen them be weaponized against Americans.

“Pro-life activists can have that SWAT team come. Meanwhile, Hunter Biden, he would have been in jail if he were a Republican, and we all know that,” DeSantis added. “So that’s, I think, a bit of frustration to see how that is wielded.”

DeSantis added that, if elected president, he would work “to end the weaponization” of the FBI and Justice Department.

DeSantis signs paperwork for South Carolina primary

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick, right, looks on as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs his filing paperwork for South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in Columbia, S.C.  (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

DeSantis was asked again later about whether he believed what Trump did on Jan. 6 “was wrong,” 

DeSantis responded that Trump “should have come out more forcefully” against rioters, but that “to try to criminalize that” is “a different issue entirely.”

DESANTIS SAYS TRUMP NOT ONLY DIDN’T FULFILL MAJOR PROMISE, IT GOT WORSE

“And I think that we want to be in a situation where, you know, you don’t have one side just constantly trying to put the other side in jail,” DeSantis added, garnering applause. 

The stop in South Carolina marked the governor’s third swing through the state as a White House hopeful. 

DeSantis in the Celebrate Freedom Foundation Hangar

Ron DeSantis, Forida’s governor and a Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a press conference at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation hangar in West Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, July 18, 2023.  (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

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DeSantis was questioned on what he believes it will take to win South Carolina, especially since voters there overwhelmingly supported Trump in the last election. 

“I mean, I think this is a great state. You talk about this issue – what state cares more about active duty, military and veterans than South Carolina,” he said. “I’m the only candidate running who has actually served in our military and that is a veteran of both parties on either side. And, upon election, I’ll be the first candidate elected who’s actually served in a war since 1988.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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