In South Carolina, Ron DeSantis said Trump « should have come out more forcefully » as rioters ransacked the Capitol, but added that he was no match for the criminal activity. Vivek Ramaswamy told POLITICO in a statement that he « would make very different judgments than President Trump » on Jan. 6. And Nikki Haley said the rest of the primary threatens to be stifled by Trump’s legal « drama. »
The responses represented at least a small crack in the deference some previously courteous candidates had shown Trump following his two previous allegations. But only a little. And privately, the campaigns were skeptical that even those modest attacks would have any impact other than benefiting Trump himself.
“Gen. 6 just sculpts the base,” said a strategist working for a Trump rival.
Critics of the former president have been left wondering what it would have taken for the camp to turn against him on Jan. 6, if a « target letter » informing Trump that he was about to be indicted for his behavior that day hadn’t the trick worked.
« This is the kabuki dance they’ll be doing for months — it won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last, » said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. « Kabuki dance is trying to have it both ways as they try to wait for the dust to settle on its legal issues. »
Nearly a month before the first debate, Special Counsel Jack Smith’s grand jury actions plunge candidates into a Rubicon they haven’t quite found a way to navigate: attacking the Trump character as shown in view through Jan. 6. or not.
Trump’s former vice president Mike Pence addressed the issue head-on in his announcement speech last month in Iowa, saying that Trump « asked » for « the choice between him and our Constitution » and adding that « anyone asked someone else to put them on the Constitution should never be president of the United States again. »
And former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson went further than his earlier remarks about Trump’s first and second charges, refusing to fill his statements with references to « presumption of innocence » and the need to « wait for facts. »
“While Donald Trump would like the American people to believe that he was the victim of this situation,” Hutchinson said in a written statement, “the truth is that the real victims of January 6 were our democracy, our rule of law and those Capitol Police Officers who have worked valiantly to protect our Capitol.”
Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, also criticized Trump, saying his « January 6 behavior proves he doesn’t care about our country and our constitution, » regardless of what the latest case shows.
But aside from that trio, the rest of the field is landing in a proverbial no man’s land on the issue of Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6. Their reticence underscores how difficult it is to continue to believe it is hitting Trump without sounding soft on the ground.
DeSantis has experienced this firsthand. Following his gentle critique that Trump “should have come out more forcefully” on Jan. 6, the Florida governor was saddled with a derisive new nickname by longtime Trump adviser Jason Miller: “Ron DeCheney”, a reference to former Representative Liz Cheney, the Republican vilified by the grassroots after co-heading the January 6 committee.
Republican operatives have internalized the idea that questioning Trump’s innocence regarding January 6 is drawing the ire of his base. And while the prosecution’s expected focus on Trump’s actions around Jan. 6 would appear to give them ground to stand on, it’s not clear that the line of attack is swaying primary voters.
« If you’re looking for an anti-Trump lane, that’s a crazy errand, » Madrid said. “You are looking for the fountain of youth. Does not exist. What you might try to do is hope that you can fill a ward that opens up if he gets tried and thrown in jail before the election.
Republican advisers working to support Trump’s main rivals didn’t immediately see Tuesday’s news as a defining moment in the race. Previous allegations have already boosted Trump’s fundraising and rallied GOP voters to his side.
« It seems like each allegation has just gotten him more support, » said a senior adviser to a rival campaign who was granted anonymity to discuss the dynamics of the campaign.
The counsel added that this probable imminent indictment is far more serious than the first two. But in the absence of further details from Smith himself, it’s unclear what the political fallout would be.
« If it looks more like New York, then it will benefit, » said another GOP consultant who declined anonymity to discuss the dynamics of the race, in reference to the prosecution for allegedly paying money to a porn actress . « But if [the DOJ] He handles it like the other indictment professionally and they have a lot of support, I think he will probably suffer, but not a lot of damage.
Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.