Former President Donald J. Trump faces 37 federal charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life, but it’s the rest of the Republican camp who are in the most immediate political trouble.
Advisors working for Trump’s opponents are facing what some consider a maddening task: trying to convince Republican primary voters, who are accustomed to Trump’s years of controversy and deeply distrustful of the government, that they will be criminally charged for holding confidential documents is a bad thing.
In earlier eras, the indictment of a presidential candidate would have been, at the very least, a political gift to the other candidates, if not an event that signaled the end of the indicted rival’s run. Contestants would get excited at the prospect of the favorite spending months tied up in court, with damning new details constantly dripping down. And they could still be Mr. Trump’s undoing: If he doesn’t finish sentenced before November 2024, his latest arrest isn’t likely to get him converts in the general election.
But Mr. Trump’s competitors—counterintuitively, according to old conventional political wisdom—actually fear what threatens to be an endless accusing news cycle that could engulf the summer. His rivals are desperate to get media coverage for their campaigns, but since the allegation became public last Thursday, as several advisers have grumbled, the only way they can get their candidates booked on television is for them to answer questions about Trump.
Mr. Trump is making full use of the trappings of his former office: the big black sports vehicles; secret service agents with dark glasses; the stops at grocery stores and restaurants with entourages, bodyguards and reporters in tow, said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who works on Nikki Haley’s campaign.
« This is powerful stuff when you campaign against it, » said Mr. Dawson.
And there’s no end in sight to the season of accusations. This was the second time Mr. Trump has been indicted in two months and he could be indicted at least one more time this summer in Georgia for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The Georgia prosecutor who led That survey signaled the timing when it announced last month that most of its staff would be working remotely during the first three weeks of August, just as Republican presidential candidates prepare for the first debate of the primary season, the August 14th. 23 in Milwaukee.
In Trump’s federal case in South Florida, it’s possible the former president could face trial in the middle of the primary season.
One Republican candidate who got some airtime, Vivek Ramaswamy, a wealthy entrepreneur and writer, did so by flying to Miami from Ohio and addressing the assembled journalists outside the courthouse to register Trump’s indictment on Tuesday. He has promised to pardon Mr. Trump if he is elected president. He railed against a « donor class » who he said was urging him to dismiss Mr. Trump, knocked on the media, and demanded that every other GOP candidate sign a pledge to pardon Mr. Trump if elected.
“Half the battle is showing up,” Mr. Ramaswamy said in an interview Tuesday night on his way to Iowa. « I’m delivering my message, at least the part that relates to the day’s events. »
Most of Trump’s other rivals have bonded by trying to shape responses to the allegations that would garner media attention without alienating Republican voters who continue to support Trump.
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has sided with Trump, but with little enthusiasm. He subtly chided Mr. Trump’s conduct, bringing up Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of confidential documents as a stand-in for Mr. Trump’s when she said he would be « court-martialed in a minute in New York » if he took documents reserved during his service in the Navy.
But Mr. DeSantis has also used the opportunity to give Republican voters what they primarily want: He defended Mr. Trump and attacked President Biden and his Justice Department, saying they unfairly target Republicans. On Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis started doing it lay out his plan to review the « armed » FBI and Justice Department. And the main pro-DeSantis super PAC released a video attacking the « Biden DOJ » for « accusing the former president ».
Before the indictment was released, former Vice President Mike Pence told CNN that he hoped Mr. Trump would not be charged because « it would be terribly divisive for the country. »
Then Mr. Pence read the indictment. Tuesday, he said The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, “These are very serious allegations. And I cannot defend what is being claimed. But the president has a right to his day in court, he has a right to present a defense, and I want to reserve judgment until he has an opportunity to respond.
Mr. Pence went on to denounce the Biden administration’s Justice Department as politicized — largely because of its treatment of Mr. Trump — and promised that as president he would clean it up.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Ms. Haley, the former UN ambassador, both initially greeted the indictment with condemnations of what they called unequal justice — harsh for Republicans, lenient for Democrats — before adding to their assessment that the allegations against Mr. Trump were serious and should be taken seriously.
Then on Tuesday, Ms. Haley volunteered that, if elected, she too would consider pardoning Mr. Trump.
All of these contortions offer an opening to candidates with simpler messages, whether for or against Trump’s indictment.
« I don’t think they know what they think yet, » Mr Ramaswamy said of the candidates he called the « finger in the wind » class. Some candidates « tend to act as spokespersons for the donors who fund them and the advisers who advise them, and the donors and advisers have not yet understood their advice. »
All of this is presumably music to Mr. Trump’s ears: As long as the media and his rivals are fighting each other and obsessing over him, he must win.
The only Republican presidential candidate thus far to speak out clearly and forcefully against Trump for the actions documented in the indictment was former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. He condemned Mr. Trump and showed contempt for Republicans who were directing the blame elsewhere.
“We’re in a situation where there are people in my own party who are blaming the DOJ,” Mr. Christie said at a CNN town hall meeting Monday night. “How about you blame him? He did it. »
He also implored his fellow contestants to focus on the front-runner, not each other, saying 2024 is playing out like a repeat of 2016 when a large field, which included Mr. Christie, took aim at affair and let Mr. Trump gallop away with the nomination.
Tucker Carlson, who was taken off the air by Fox News but remains influential with the Republican base, posted a video to Twitter Tuesday night capturing what Trump’s rivals are facing. Mr Carlson tried to portray the federal indictment as evidence that Mr. Trump was « the only guy with a real chance of being president » who was feared by the Washington establishment. The clip is an implied rebuke of Mr. DeSantis and comes close to approving Mr. Trump.
It’s too soon after the indictment to draw any solid conclusions about how Republican voters are processing the news. But the first data bode well for Trump and ominously for his opponents. In a CBS News Poll released Sunday, just 7 percent of likely Republican primary voters said the charge would lower their opinion of Trump. The double claimed the prosecution would change their view of him « for the better. »
An adviser to one of Trump’s rivals, speaking on condition of anonymity to be frank, admitted he was depressed at the way Republican voters were receiving news of what he considered devastating facts unearthed by special counsel, Jack Smith .
“I think the reality is that there is so much distrust of the Justice Department and the FBI after the Hillary years and the Russiagate investigation that it seems like no other fact will convince Republican voters otherwise right now ”said the adviser.
Mr Dawson, who supports Ms Haley, said Trump’s poll numbers were likely to rise in the coming weeks, along with sentiment that the government could not be trusted.
The other candidates bet they have the luxury of time.
Mr. Christie has stepped forward to bloodied the former president with his attacks, which are unlikely to help Mr. Christie’s position, but could help other Republicans in the race: those abstaining but « ranking up » behind Mr. Christie , as one councilor put it, perhaps intentionally, using a horse-racing term.
As more information emerges ahead of the former president’s trial, particularly about the details of what was contained in classified documents Mr. Trump has kept — details about battle plans and nuclear programs — the seriousness of the crimes it is accused the former president could penetrate slowly.
That is the hope, at least, for Trump’s languishing rivals far back him in the polls.
“Let that little pop pop, then get out of here, let the voters read the term paper, and let it sink,” Dawson said. He added, of Mr. Trump: « People will start questioning his sanity. »