In the overheated basement of the Thunder Bay Grille in Davenport, Iowa, Thursday night, entrepreneur-turned-Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy rehearsed a new opening for his well-practiced stump speech.
« While it would be easier for someone like me to win this primary or win this election if some people like Donald Trump weren’t in the running, that’s not how I want to win, » the biotech millionaire told staunch Scott County Republicans. packed up room on the outskirts of this city on the Mississippi River.
« That’s not how we do things in America, » he continued. “We are not a country where the ruling party should be able to use the police force to incriminate its political opponents. And I don’t support politics but the principle.
It was a portentous broadside from a man running for president, questioning the integrity of a justice system that had just filed its first federal charges against a former president. And it’s something Mr. Ramaswamy admits he has struggled with, as his claims could undermine the rule of law which he says he staunchly supports.
The comments drew applause from an audience not ready to repudiate Trump, but perhaps looking for an alternative.
“I admire Trump for what he has done for our country; I admire him immensely,” said Linda Chicarelli Renkes, of Rock Island, Illinois, just across the Mississippi, who had praised Mr. Ramaswamy for his promise to pardon the former president if elected. “But I’m tired.”
The indictment of Mr. Trump on charges of mishandling some of the nation’s most sensitive military and nuclear secrets, then flagrantly obstructing law enforcement efforts to recover them, has put Republican political leaders at a moment’s notice. of choice between their oft-voiced allegiance to law and order and their sensitivity to the passions of their constituents.
More than any other presidential candidate not named Trump, Mr. Ramaswamy has staked an uncompromising stance assaulting the charges facing the Republican primary frontrunner. He didn’t call the charge « devastating, » as former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey did. He has not asked Mr. Trump to drop out of the race, as former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson did.
He did not attempt the contortions of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, denouncing federal overreach even by suggesting that anyone who mishandles confidential documents should be prosecuted. He also hasn’t admitted that Special Counsel Jack Smith’s allegations are serious, as are former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott and former Governor Nikki Haley, both of South Carolina.
Instead, Mr. Ramaswamy said that while Mr. Trump may have displayed some lapses in judgement, the Biden administration has dangerously abused its power to block the return of a political rival. In Davenport, he denounced what he called the « politicized persecution through prosecution » of enemies of the Biden administration, and promised to pardon Biden’s victims en masse, whether they were « peaceful protesters » jailed for the attack on the Capitol or Mr.. Trump.
For an outsider with no political experience beyond his TV news appearances and his « anti-wake-up » rants against corporate liberalism, Mr. Ramaswamy is showing some staying power.
His polls aren’t great: Trump’s own pollster McLaughlin & Associates released a poll after the indictment that put Ramaswamy at 2% in Iowa, behind five other candidates. But he received the 40,000 individual donations to qualify for the Republican primary debates and, as of now, has the required 1% in national polls for the first debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee.
He also has deep ties to Republican sources of power, including tech financier Peter Thiel and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
But his right-wing drive, which had already alienated some of his business associates and lenders, raises a new question: Are Republicans like Ramaswamy risking the country’s stability for their own political fortunes?
While Mr. Ramaswamy is the longest of shots when it comes to winning the nomination, some fear the aggressive rhetoric he and other Republicans regularly use — both in defense of Mr. Trump and in attacking the justice system — could cause lasting damage. .
In an interview on his well-equipped campaign bus, the candidate was guarded. He agreed that his request for any candidate to pre-emptively promise Mr. Trump a pardon could generate illegality, although he concluded that his offer of him was defensible because it closely matched only the allegations set out in the special counsel’s indictment. If other offenses, such as passing national security secrets to foreign powers, emerged in the process, the deal would be off.
He also said he wanted to make sure « that I’m not contributing to an issue I deeply care about », the erosion of the rule of law.
“The thought crosses my mind, but I think the facts are clear,” he said: President Biden accused the opposing party’s frontline challenger of hindering his rise.
Mr. Biden has done no such thing. A federal grand jury brought the indictment, at the behest of a special counsel appointed by Attorney General, Merrick B. Garland, precisely to insulate Mr. Trump’s legal investigation from any perceived or actual pressure from the president or his political appointees.
Mr Ramaswamy said he was not willing to accept that version of events. He flew to Miami the morning of Mr. Trump’s indictment to announce before television crews assembled in federal court that he had filed Freedom of Information Act requests for any communications between the White House and Justice Department leadership, and between the justice Department management and Mr. Smith.
Mr. Ramaswamy has a law degree from Yale, though he made his wealth not in law but in finance and biotechnology. However, he speaks with absolute certainty when he rails against the validity of the federal grand jury indictment, which he called « reeks of politicization. » The Presidential Records Act, not the Espionage Act, is the government’s legal authority over former presidents, he said, and the records act gives former presidents broad latitude to keep records from their years in the White House.
This reasoning has been rejected by more seasoned Republican legal minds, such as Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, and retired appellate court judge J. Michael Luttig. Judge Luttig he wrote on Twitter on the day of Mr. Trump’s indictment, « there isn’t an attorney general on either side who wouldn’t have filed today’s charges against the former president. »
When asked about these judgements, Mr Ramaswamy said he should have looked more closely at the words of people like Mr Barr and Mr Luttig. But he offered another defense of his attacks on the legal system: Republican voters already believe it.
« Actually acknowledging a reality that other leaders are reluctant to acknowledge, I think actually increases net trust for our institutions, » he said.
While he may follow the passions of voters, not lead them, Mr. Ramaswamy insisted his position was principled, not political.
« I will be deeply disappointed if Donald Trump is unable to run because of these politicized allegations against him, » he said.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s denunciation of the indictment is just the latest stance in a campaign based on his belief that the former president’s « America First » agenda belongs not to Mr. Trump, but to the American people – and that it has the intelligence and the courage to go much further than Mr. Trump ever could.
If Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and Trump’s closest competitor, is « Trumpism without Trump », Ramaswamy proposes himself as Trumpism squared.
The appeal has its limits, especially with ardent Trump supporters who still want the real deal.
« I haven’t seen anything Vivek and Donald Trump say that isn’t perfectly aligned, » said Clint Crawford, 48, of Eldridge, Iowa, after seeing the candidate during a session at the four-story Estes Construction offices. above downtown Davenport. . With the former president determined to stay in the race, Mr Crawford said, he won’t change.
But there is a chance that Mr. Trump fails a potential federal trial, another possible trial in New York on felony charges surrounding an undisclosed money to a porn star, a looming indictment from Georgia over efforts to overturn the 2020 election results there, and more coming from Mr. Smith.
If Mr. Trump withdraws, Mr. Ramaswamy intends to be the alternative.
« It’s so ongoing with Trump — it’s our past, it’s our present and it’s not going to stop, » said Penny Overbaugh, 77, who stood Thursday in Bettendorf, Iowa, to commend Mr. Ramaswamy for the his performance in Miami on the morning of the hearing. As for the younger challenger, « the fact that he could see the hypocrisy of the two-faced justice system is convincing. »