Leadership Insights

In Disney-DeSantis fight, former AG Bill Barr backs Florida governor

Key Points
  • Former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr tells CNBC's David Faber at the CNBC CEO Council Summit that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is right on the issues in his battle with Disney.
  • Barr, who expressed support for DeSantis as a presidential candidate as far back as a year ago, said at the CNBC event he will support any Republican who can defeat Donald Trump.
  • DeSantis has become popular with GOP megadonors and is expected to announce his campaign for the presidency on a Twitter Spaces with Elon Musk on Wednesday.

In this article

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference before he signs five state house bills into law at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa, Florida, U.S. May 17, 2023.
Octavio Jones | Reuters

Many Republicans have split on the battle between Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and amid a broader "demonization" of corporations, some conservatives are worried about a shift away from a key pro-business plank in recent GOP history.

Count former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr among top Republicans who don't like the idea of using sovereign power to punish a company, but in the ongoing battle between DeSantis and Disney CEO Bob Iger, Barr is firmly on the side of the governor.

"On this one, though, I actually support DeSantis," Barr told CNBC's David Faber at the CNBC CEO Council Summit this week in Santa Barbara, California. "For me, what is important here is that Disney was getting special privileges," Barr said, adding that Disney should be "treated like every one else."

Disney has sued the state in federal court, accusing DeSantis of a political retribution campaign against the company after the governor signed legislation voiding Disney's development deals in Orlando.

"Disney's intervention here was very unfair, and pandered to and played to a narrative by his political opponents," Barr said.

On the underlying issue — which began after Disney publicly criticized the GOP-backed Florida bill limiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms — Barr says DeSantis was supporting "reasonable policy" about the appropriate age for discussion of these issues.

"Obviously, the motivation ran deeper than that, but it doesn't bother me," he added.

Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks to the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Joe Cavaretta | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

Some business interests won't take sides in the fight; some top donors are pouring more money into the Florida governor's coffers. Barr — who is now aligned with a conservative lobby planning to attack many of the Biden administration's regulatory policies — said he isn't worried about any friction in the relationship between DeSantis and the business world from the Disney issue. "If business people prefer the Biden administration over DeSantis, I don't think they will be moved by this issue one way or another," he said.

The two-time attorney general — who also has served in the corporate sector as a general counsel in the telecom space — said his views on DeSantis and Disney do not change his belief that business leaders are more important to the future success of the U.S. than many politicians.

"Big business has to clean up its own act, but as far as the GOP is concerned, the message I deliver all the time is that regardless of what we feel about politics, at the end of the day, central to the GOP vision is strong economic growth and tech supremacy of the U.S., and who is going to deliver that?" Barr said. "It's not people sitting in Congress, not bureaucrats. American companies will beat China, not the committee chairman in Congress."

Former AG Barr backs DeSantis in Disney battle
Former AG Barr backs DeSantis in Disney battle

Separately, Nike CEO John Donahoe expressed his support for Disney's position and corporate embrace of "core values" at the CNBC CEO Council Summit. "I think Bob's doing a great job at this," Donahoe said of Disney CEO Bob Iger.

Barr, who expressed support for DeSantis as far back as a year ago when the governor got off to a quick start in early polling that has since faded, said he is ready to support "any Republican capable of beating Trump, and I think we have a good group announcing."

DeSantis is expected to formally announce his campaign in a Twitter Spaces with Elon Musk on Wednesday, while South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott entered the race with backing from Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison on Tuesday (Musk also has expressed words of support for Scott, though he will not endorse a candidate).

Barr said he remains confident that Trump will be beaten in the primary, "and if not in the primary, he will be beaten" in the general election, he added.

Of recent polling showing Trump back in the lead, Barr said the polls do not reflect where many GOP voters are trending. "Many Republicans understand the great opportunity for 2024 and Trump is most likely to lose. And even if he won he wouldn't have strength to accomplish much. ... Once the other candidates are out there, the polls will shift," he said.

Barr added that there has been a "softening" among GOP voters, even in the MAGA base, on the issue of a "stolen" election. "More and more say it wasn't fraud, but it was rigged rules. ... fewer people believe fraud," he said.

Barr lashed out at progressive politics during the interview, calling it a "cutesy name for a Marxist view of history and the world, and the meaning of life."

"It essentially involves elevating the collective above the individual ... the perfecting of the collective," Barr said. "This is an ideology that says people will be judged by whichever side is advancing or retarding their cause," and he expressed his concern that it could evolve into a form of "soft despotism" in the U.S. 

Disney CEO Bob Iger believes this is a battle he can win against Gov. DeSantis: Puck's Matt Belloni
Disney CEO Bob Iger believes this is a battle he can win against Gov. DeSantis: Puck's Matt Belloni