Trump’s GOP Grip Forces Rivals Into Contortions After Indictment

Donald Trump’s indictment laid bare his complicated relationship with Republicans, forcing them to thread a needle between expressing full-throated fealty and attacking the Democratic prosecutor who brought the case to suit their own agendas.

(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump’s indictment laid bare his complicated relationship with Republicans, forcing them to thread a needle between expressing full-throated fealty and attacking the Democratic prosecutor who brought the case to suit their own agendas. 

Republicans — including those considering a White House bid, themselves — almost unanimously condemned the prosecution and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg as politically motivated. But subtleties in the pronouncements reveal the fear within the Republican Party of getting cross-wise with Trump’s hard-core supporters, crucial in a primary.  

The contortion was most on display in the statement issued by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whom Trump has been attacking for months as his strongest potential challenger for the 2024 presidential nomination.

DeSantis issued a 77-word statement on Twitter condemning the indictment as a “weaponization of the legal system” and “un-American” but didn’t mention Trump by name. He said that he wouldn’t assist with an extradition order, even though Trump’s lawyers had already said he would surrender voluntarily. 

It was a political chess move that allowed him to show Trump supporters he’s willing to fight for the former president — especially after getting backlash for jabbing him earlier this month for allegedly paying hush-money to a porn star — while at the same time leaning into his political brand of presiding over a “free” state. 

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who announced her candidacy last month, as well as US Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — two other potential contenders —  all also offered responses that criticized the indictment without mentioning Trump’s name.

Others, like former Vice President Mike Pence, who just weeks ago surprised a Washington crowd by attacking his ex-boss for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, focused on the unprecedented nature of the indictment. 

Taken together, the statements show the difficulty that besets the Republican Party with 10 months before voting starts in GOP caucuses and primaries. Some members of the party see this election cycle as their best chance in the last seven years to move past Trump. But others are either beholden to him or seek to woo his base, that resolute 30% or so that may allow him to skate through a presidential primary in a crowded field or can be dispatched in congressional primaries to unseat disloyal members. 

There’s no appetite among Republican voters for candidates to do anything short of condemning the indictment — even though the charges haven’t been revealed — and it’s clear from watching the reaction on conservative media that any Republican who criticized Trump would be hammered, said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who’s worked on presidential campaigns including Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 bid.  

“Republican voters view this through the lens of ‘us versus them,’ and you don’t want to be seen as siding with ‘them,’” Conant said.

On CNN, Pence called the indictment related to campaign finance matters “outrageous” and said “it appears to millions of Americans to be nothing more than a political prosecution that’s driven by a prosecutor who literally ran for office on a pledge to indict the former president.”

Pompeo attacked Bragg and deployed the GOP talking point of tying Bragg to Democratic political donor George Soros. 

Mike DuHaime, the top strategist for former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s campaigns, said it’s probably fine in this case for candidates to try to thread the needle because GOP voters are likely to rally around the former president, who polls indicate is the clear front-runner. 

But Trump could face more charges in the other state and federal investigations he faces, and eventually candidates will have to take on Trump if they want to defeat him, DuHaime said.

“In the long run, it’s a losing strategy to just try to dance around Trump all the time,” DuHaime said. “From a long term strategic point of view, they’re going to have to eventually get over their fear of Trump.”

Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who’s been laying the groundwork for a White House bid, said Trump shouldn’t be the next president and urged Americans in a statement to wait on the facts. But he also said “it is essential that the decision on America’s next president be made at the ballot box and not in the court system.”

Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who worked on Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, said the candidates could have said the process will play out, as Hutchinson did, or not comment at all, President Joe Biden’s approach so far. Tyler called GOP aspirants’ reactions “cowardly.”

Biden on Friday morning declined to comment on the case to reporters as the White House attempts to avoid any appearance of political meddling in the justice system. 

“Trump has managed to twist and contort everyone in the Republican Party to the point where they just look silly,” Tyler said. “I guess if he does go to jail, you won’t have to be afraid of him anymore.”

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