Former President Donald Trump is reportedly facing multiple felony charges as part of a federal indictment against him surrounding his handling of classified documents. This is only the second time in history a former president has been indicted (the first being Trump’s charges related to allegations of hush money he indirectly paid to Stormy Daniels) and the first time a former president has been federally indicted. This would be remarkable on its own, but Trump is more than just a former president — he is also an active candidate for president. These charges and the case surrounding them will undoubtedly have an impact on the campaign, and it won’t necessarily be bad for Trump.
An important factor in whether the indictment hurts Trump politically will be how the other candidates react. With the last indictment, Trump’s GOP challengers avoided directly criticizing the former president — in fact, they largely defended him, hewing to the general party line that the charges were politically motivated and unjust. This time around, we’re mostly seeing more of the same, but if you squint, you can start to see some cracks in their defenses.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted, “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” claiming that there has been an “uneven application of the law.” He questioned why the Department of Justice was “so zealous” in its investigations of Trump but not of Hillary Clinton or Hunter Biden before pledging to “bring accountability” to the department if elected. This is obviously hitting many of the same notes that Trump and other Republicans have, with claims of political bias in the DOJ. But notably, it doesn’t really defend Trump either. DeSantis is suggesting the DOJ ought to have been more zealous in investigating Democrats for perceived wrongdoing, but he doesn’t say that it never should have charged Trump at all or that the former president did nothing wrong (which, per his posts on Truth Social, is essentially Trump’s position). This is not as forceful as his reaction to Trump’s first indictment, which he called “un-American” and said was the result of a Democratic district attorney “stretching the law” to attack a political opponent. It’s a far cry from a full-throated attack on Trump, but it’s noteworthy to see any movement from DeSantis on this, considering his efforts to align himself with the Trumpist wing of the party.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott took a similar tack, saying on Fox News that the charges are an example of “a justice system where the scales are weighted” and pledged on Twitter to “purge all the injustices in our system.” But he too fell short of explicitly defending Trump or wading too deeply into the specifics of the case. So did former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who said in a campaign statement, “The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards, and vendetta politics. It’s time to move beyond the endless drama and distractions.” And, if nothing else, their responses were more measured than businessman Vivek Ramaswamy’s, who pledged to pardon Trump if elected.
Other candidates were willing to edge even further away from the party line. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who launched his campaign earlier this week, said before the charges were announced that such an indictment would be “extremely divisive” for the nation. But he added: “No one’s above the law. And if the Department of Justice chooses to move forward with an indictment, I would hope that it would meet the very high threshold for the unprecedented action of a federal indictment against the former president.” Again, this is far from an explicit condemnation of Trump’s actions, but it falls short of completely embracing the idea that the indictment is purely politically motivated and that Trump did nothing wrong.
And this time around, there are candidates in the race who have historically been more comfortable criticizing the party leader: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, both of whom were more accepting of the charges. Before the indictment was announced, Christie said on PBS, “If [Trump] committed a crime and there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to prove that crime, then he must be charged,” and later told Fox News that Trump’s legal woes are “self-inflicted wounds.” Hutchinson released a statement saying, “Donald Trump’s actions—from his willful disregard for the Constitution to his disrespect for the rule of law—should not define our nation or the Republican Party,” and reiterated his call — first made in March — for Trump to drop out of the race.
To be clear, none of this is a significant departure from the reactions we saw from other GOP contenders the last time Trump was indicted. And the overall response from Republicans, including those running against Trump, has been to support the former president and condemn the indictment rather than his actions. Most of these candidates have a tough needle to thread, wishing to both endear themselves to the party base while also convincing them that Trump is no longer right for the job. And President Biden, for his part, is likely to stay mum on the charges, as he did the last time around. This is particularly crucial for Biden due to the fact that it’s his own Justice Department that indicted Trump, and he emphasized in a press conference yesterday that he has “never once, not one single time, suggested to the Justice Department what they should do or not do relative to bringing a charge or not bringing a charge.” All this means that this indictment could result in a bit of a boost for Trump, yet again.
But the slight departures from the official party stance, and a cooler response from fellow GOP contenders compared to last time, shows the loyalty may be starting to wane. As Trump faces yet more potential charges in other open investigations, there may come a day when defending the former president becomes more politically risky than calling him out.
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