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(LifeSiteNews) –– Former President Donald Trump continues to double down on his support for the COVID-19 vaccines, repeating the suggestion that they saved “100 million people” while claiming he had no regrets about his handling of COVID-19, and defending his decision not to remove lockdown proponent Dr. Anthony Fauci, in a contentious sit-down interview with Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier.

During the wide-ranging interview, aired in two parts Monday and Tuesday, the former president and Republican 2024 candidate reiterated his claim to have a “very smart” Democrat friend who questioned why “I’ve never heard you talk about the incredible job you did with the vaccines […] You may have saved in the world, throughout the world, 100 million people and you never talk about it.”

“I said I really don’t want to talk about it because as a Republican, it’s not a great thing to talk about because for some reason it’s just not,” Trump responded. “Because people love the vaccines and people hate the vaccines. But conservatives aren’t, and, and I understand both sides of it, by the way. I understand both sides very well. What I didn’t do is the mandates.”

Trump then attempted to paint his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as “a guy who could forget the past so quickly” due to DeSantis’s early support of the shots, which the governor has long since repudiated as evidence about their ineffectiveness and adverse effects has come to light. Last year his administration began conducting its own studies, which concluded that they should not be taken by young men, and the Florida Supreme Court approved DeSantis’s request for a grand jury investigation into the claims of the vaccines’ manufacturers.

He also suggested DeSantis had supported Fauci, the former White House Coronavirus Task Force member and National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director and one of the foremost proponents of lockdown policies, apparently a reference to DeSantis speaking positively about the Trump administration’s COVID team, including Fauci, in the early weeks of the pandemic. By summer 2020, DeSantis was publicly pushing back against Fauci’s claims that he reopened Florida too soon.

“Sure, but you didn’t fire him. You listened to him, you kept him on,” Baier said.

“You’re not actually allowed to fire him but I wouldn’t let that usually get in my way. You know, it’s one of those things,” Trump asserted, citing federal civil service rules and insisting “I never actually spent a lot of time with Fauci.” While NIAID Director is not a presidentially-appointed position and therefore Trump could not have removed Fauci from the government entirely, Fauci’s membership on the White House COVID task force was purely within the president’s discretion.

Despite reports and comments at the time indicating some disagreement between the two men, as late as July 2020 Trump said that he had a “very good relationship” with Fauci, who has a “very good approval rating and I like that […] We could have gotten other people. We could have gotten somebody else. It didn’t have to be Dr. Fauci.” As late as October 2020, Trump’s reelection campaign was releasing campaign ads aligning the president with Fauci, whom Trump gave a presidential commendation “in recognition of [his] exceptional efforts on Operation Warp Speed” on his last full day in office.

Trump also said “no” when asked, “do you have regrets about how you handled that” in reference to his administration’s COVID response.

“I gave the governors the options,” he said. “For instance, Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina…he didn’t shut it down. Tennessee didn’t shut it down. South Dakota didn’t shut it down. Georgia shut it down for a little while, but not much. They did a good job […] It’s a federalist system. I told all governors, you do what you want, you can shut it down or not. Florida, by the way, he shut it down tight, no highways, no beaches, no this.”

Trump’s answer was a stark departure from his April 2020 criticism of Georgia for reopening “too soon,” as well as how he spoke about DeSantis and Florida before perceiving the governor as a potential rival. Throughout the latter half of 2020, Trump repeatedly praised him for resisting lockdowns:

While it is not disputed that DeSantis initially imposed a number of COVID restrictions (acting in part on data and guidance from the Trump administration), the governor openly expressed regret at what he calls the “huge mistake” of imposing any restrictions at all, and as more information came in he reversed course, quickly establishing one of the most anti-lockdown records in the country, defying insistence that his policies would lead to mass death.

On the subject of Florida’s beaches, conservative commentator Dana Loesch has detailed that while some localities closed beaches, DeSantis actually “refused” to do so at the state level (prompting left-wing attorney Daniel Uhlfelder to infamously parade at beaches dressed like the Grim Reaper in protest), and in fact issued an executive order expressly protecting outdoor recreation as an “essential activity” along with religious services.

Trump’s COVID record is seen as one of the former president’s biggest vulnerabilities as he seeks to return to the White House, as well as one of DeSantis’s chief strengths. As the former president who for months was the only declared major candidate, Trump holds a commanding lead in national polls for the GOP nomination, although DeSantis, who announced his anticipated candidacy on May 24, has the edge in fundraising and is expected to be competitive in the early states. Voting in the Republican primaries does not begin until next January with the Iowa caucuses.