Former President Donald J. Trump’s federal impeachment has left the Republican Party – and its rivals for the party nomination – with a stark choice between deferring to a system of law and order that has been central to the identity of the party for half a century or a more radical path of resistance, to the ruling Democratic Party and the nation’s top institutions that Trump now mocks.
How the men and women seeking to lead the party into the 2024 election respond to the ex-president’s allegations in the coming months will have huge implications for the future of the GOP
So far, declared presidential candidates who are not Mr. Trump have split into three camps regarding his federal indictment last Thursday: those who strongly supported him and his insistence that the indictment is a politically driven means to deny him a second White House Term, like Vivek Ramaswamy; those who have urged Americans to take the allegations seriously, such as Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson; and those who straddled both camps, condemning the charge but pushing voters to outrun Trump’s leadership, such as Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.
The trick, for all of Trump’s competitors, will be to strike the balance between harnessing the anger of core party voters who remain devoted to him while gaining their support as an alternative candidate.
Mr. Trump is expected to appear in court on Tuesday in Florida. The danger for Republicans after the January 6 Capitol riot is that encouraging too much anger could lead to chaos — and what pollsters call the “ghettoization” of their party: confined to minority status by voters reluctant to let go the fervent beliefs that were rejected by the majority.
That point was laid bare on Sunday by a new CBS News/YouGov poll which found that 80 percent of Americans outside the core Republican voter base saw a national security risk in Trump’s handling of classified nuclear and military documents, while only 38 percent of likely Republican primary voters saw identified such a risk.
In the same poll, only 7 percent of Republicans said the indictment changed their opinion of the former president for the worse; 14% said their views have changed for the better; and the majority, 61%, said their views won’t change. More than three-quarters of Republican primary voters said the allegations were politically motivated.
A separate ABC News/Ipsos poll showed 61% of Americans considered the allegations serious, up from 52% in April when pollsters asked about mishandling of classified documents. Among Republicans, 38 percent said the allegations were serious, also up from 21 percent this spring. But only about half of Americans said Mr. Trump should be indicted, unchanged from April.
“Baseball voters see the double standard in politics. I keep hearing, “When are they going to indict the Bidens?” said Katon Dawson, former South Carolina Republican Party chairman and senior adviser to Ms. Haley, former South Carolina governor and Trump ambassador to the United Nations. . But, he added, « 65 percent of our primary voters are just tired of all the drama and I think they’re looking for a new generation of Republicans to get us out of the wilderness. »
Ms. Haley embodied that balancing act, saying in a statement, « This is not how justice should be pursued in our country, » and also, « It’s time to move beyond the never-ending drama. »
Trump’s closest rival for the 2024 nomination, Florida governor Mr. DeSantis captured the same spirit when he reflected on Friday that he « would be court-martialed in a minute in New York » if he took confidential documents during his service in the Navy. He was referring to Hillary Clinton – who returned as a Republican black man this week – and her misuse of classified material as secretary of state, but the double meaning was clear, just as it was when she said: « There must be a standard of justice in this country. Let’s impose it on everyone. »
Those urging voters to read the allegations facing Trump — his mishandling of highly classified documents about some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets and his subsequent steps to stymie law enforcement — are a lonelier group in the broader Party. Republican. Only two former governors running for president – both former prosecutors – Mr. Christie of New Jersey and Mr. Hutchinson of Arkansas, are aligned with a handful of other leaders such as Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who was the only Republican senator to vote to remove Mr. Trump from office twice.
But their voices are likely to be amplified in the coming days by a media eager to give them a microphone. Mr. Christie will hold a town hall meeting on CNN Monday night, while Mr. Hutchinson, the longest-running of the nomination long shots, has given a flurry of interviews.
« The Republican Party shouldn’t be dropping this case, » Hutchinson said in an interview. « These are serious allegations on which a grand jury has found probable cause. »
On Sunday morning, former Trump Attorney General William P. Barr spoke on Fox News Sunday, saying he was “shocked by the degree of sensitivity of these documents and by how many there were”.
« If even half of it is true, that’s toast » said Mr. Barr. “It’s a very detailed allegation and it’s very, very damning. This idea of presenting Trump as a victim here – a victim of a witch hunt – is ridiculous.”
Trump’s critics also have an appeal that goes to the core of the party’s identity: law and order. Republicans are still attacking Democrats on the rise in street crime after the pandemic, even as they attack the FBI, the Justice Department, the special prosecutor and the federal grand jury system.
« If Congress has the ability to oversee the Justice Department, I have encouraged them to do so vigorously and fairly and to ask as many questions as they need to, » Christie told CNN. “But what we should also do is take into account the people who hold responsible positions and say, if you do wrong, there must be sanctions for that. There has to be a cost to pay. »
But voters eager to believe Mr. Trump’s dark stories of a nefarious « deep state, » of « communists » bent on destroying America, are getting encouragement from candidates who are ostensibly Mr. Trump’s rivals. To them, the calculus seems to hook the former president’s voters on whether his legal troubles will finally end his political career.
“I am personally deeply skeptical of everything in that allegation,” Mr. Ramaswamy, a wealthy entrepreneur and author, said on CNN’s « State of the Union. »on Sunday, adding: « I personally have no faith in those vague allegations. »
Other candidates were less outspoken but equally willing to challenge the integrity of the justice system, a system, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said so« where the scales are weighted » against conservatives.
“If you want to get to President Trump, you’re going to have to go through me and 75 million Americans just like me. And most of us are registered members of the NRA, » said Kari Lake, the failed candidate for governor of Arizona.
Most surprisingly it was voices from the Trumpist right who voiced their concerns — about the allegations and their impact on the future of the Republican Party. When Charlie Kirk of pro-Trump Turning Point USA called on all other Republican presidential candidates to drop out of the race in solidarity with Trump, Ann Coulter, the right-hand bomb thrower, responded“It’s nothing! I call on EVERY REPUBLICAN TO COMMIT SUICIDE in solidarity with Trump! — recognizing that rallying around the former president could send the party into oblivion.
Mike Cernovich, a right-wing lawyer and provocateur, criticized the prosecution as a « selective process, » but also said: « Trump fell into this trap. »
How the party and its 2024 candidates respond will matter for the country and for the party’s political fortunes. The leading Republican voter may side with Trump, but most Americans most likely don’t. It’s a dilemma, acknowledged Clifford Young, president of US public affairs at the polling and marketing firm Ipsos.
« For the average American in the middle, they’re upset, » he said, « but for the grassroots, not only is support solidifying, but they don’t believe what’s happening. »
« Heck, » he added, « they think I won the election. »