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Vivek Ramaswamy Is Defending Trump More Forcefully Than Other 2024 Contenders. It Might Be This Week’s Smartest Move

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As America waits to see what a grand jury in Manhattan decides in the case of a porn star and a former President, most of Donald Trump’s rivals have taken considered jabs at the current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination. But one standout from the field is linking arms with the maybe-soon-to-be-indicted former White House resident in a piece of political gamesmanship that belies his inexperience in the chase.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the “anti-woke” entrepreneur, is unabashedly defending Trump against expected criminal charges, a defense that is also serving as his introduction to a party that still loves Trump while remaining not entirely sold that a third nomination for someone seemingly hours away from a perp walk is prudent. The tactic may demand a re-evaluation of the state of the 2024 primary field.

“A Trump indictment would be a national disaster. It is un-American for the ruling party to use police power to arrest its political rivals,” Ramaswamy tweeted. “If a Republican prosecutor in 2004 had used a campaign finance technicality to arrest then-candidate John Kerry while Bush & Cheney were in power, liberals would have cried foul—and rightly so. Principles go beyond partisanship.” He also nimbly called on a fellow declared candidate, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and a likely contender, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, to join him in condemning the possible indictment, a bold rallying move that positioned him as an unequivocal Trump booster.

As The D.C. Brief has previously noted, Trump still has a hold on the Republican Party’s base, where it’s impossible for more than about one-fifth of that bloc to believe that Trump isn’t still the rightful President and that all of the current raft of investigations against Trump—in New York, Washington, and Georgia—aren’t motivated by politics. Still, these same voters aren’t ready to entirely dismiss the probes’ merits. After all, a Reuters poll this week found 70% of Americans find the accusations that Trump paid Stormy Daniels to stay silent about an alleged affair believable, and half of Republicans share that view. In the same poll, 62% of Americans and one-third of Republicans said it was believable that Trump cooked his business’ books and committed fraud.

Trump’s loyalists think he can weather an indictment that is rumored to be coming any time now, a notion fed directly by Trump himself. Trump’s strategists, both formal and informal, believe an indictment actually helps his causes, as TIME’s Brian Bennett reports. And it’s not entirely clear that the seemingly most immediate legal threat to the President in Manhattan is the most compelling or even the easiest to win, and there are reasons aplenty for Democrats and other Trump detractors to worry that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg might inadvertently be teeing up a win for both Trump’s legal team and the former President’s bid to return to power.

We still aren’t sure what—if anything—Bragg is readying. The working thesis is it could be some combination of hush money-corporate fraud indictment that could reach the felony level. But Trump, the New York courthouse where he would be processed, and the streets around that Manhattan site are all bracing for imminent action.

That hasn’t stopped most of Trump’s rivals from looking to score points of some stripe. DeSantis made a point to note that he personally was unaware of how one pays hush money to porn stars to silence reports of an affair. Trump’s former Vice President, Mike Pence, said Trump’s calls for protests mustn’t have shades of the deadly ones that Trump summoned on Jan. 6, 2021. (So far, TIME’s Vera Bergengruen reports, the calls are going unanswered.) Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie posited that “Donald Trump is not someone who could be a winning general election candidate for the Republican Party because of all these things.”

All were quick to add their version of a thesis that Bragg is a political hack chasing a scalp to boost his own future. They also implicitly or explicitly disparaged a Democratic Party that has universally loathed Trump since his 2016 campaign and, no matter what any trials show, will believe him to be a corrupt figure deserving unwavering contempt. “It’s more about revenge than it is about justice,” Haley said.

DeSantis, the biggest of Trump’s targets of late, ramped up his criticisms Tuesday night, giving an interview to Piers Morgan where he dismissed any feuding with Trump as “background noise” and touted the idea that voters care about a leader’s “character.”

The criticism—or even muted support—from his potential and real rivals has roiled Trump, holed up at Mar-a-Lago with dues-paying club members and advisers. He is said to be particularly curlish about DeSantis’ critique, as well as the perceived disloyalty from Haley. Trump considers himself the creator of both figures’ national profiles, having saved DeSantis’ 2018 primary bid for Florida Governor and catapulting Haley from the Governor’s office in Columbia, S.C., to one of the most important American diplomatic posts.

“Ron DeSanctimonious is dropping in the Polls so fast that he soon may be falling behind young Vivek Ramaswamy,” Trump tweeted on Monday.

And that, right there, is about as smart of a way to ride the jetstream of Republican politics right now. Ramaswamy is far from a household name at this point; a Monmouth poll this week had 49% of Republicans saying they had never heard of him. As a 37-year-old entrepreneur, author, and activist, he has a lot of ground to make up as a first-time candidate. Even a bankshot nod of approval from Trump can go a long way in a party that—in the face of electoral evidence otherwise—considers him a kingmaker. Just as a smart NASCAR driver does, Ramaswamy is tucking into the draft of the frontrunner, cutting down on headwind and lowering air pressure to ease his own path. Put another way: you can’t stop the wave, but you can ride it.

Is such a slide into Trump’s shadow enough for Ramaswamy to get up to speed with the likes of the ex-President, Florida Governor or even trailing figures like a former VP? On its own, of course not. But having Trump’s implicit allyship is currency aplenty in the Republican Party. Having his ambivalence might be even more valuable. Sens. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham went from unleashing blistering critiques of Trump on the 2016 trail to some of his golf buddies, recognizing a detente can grease the path for their own agendas. Now-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy quickly pocketed his worries about Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6, 2021, in order to get Trump’s blessing to keep chasing the top job in the Lower Chamber.

Ramaswamy remains something of a footnote in this campaign for now. The Harvard- and Yale Law-educated son of immigrants is a leading voice in the “anti-woke” movement, and his contempt for corporate activism on inclusion and climate change has deep potential for resonance in the current GOP. Among the set that watches Fox News from dawn until dusk, Ramaswamy is a rockstar for those who think cancel culture is threatening every corner of American life and schools have become indoctrination factories. His ideas aren’t far afield from the primary electorate and his salesmanship of them stands to be a real threat in a party that just eight years ago decided to go with another smooth-talking, outside-the-box rich guy who professed hatred of the elites.

First, though, Ramaswamy needs to get some momentum and a way to rise. His decision to explicitly oppose a national abortion ban doesn’t help him in a primary, but sidling up with Trump and his professed victimhood of a politically motivated prosecutor is as smart a way to get an advantage at a moment when Trumpists are looking at every move in the 2024 field as a loyalty test. A bankshot blessing from Trump is about as good as an advantage as anyone running so far has enjoyed.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com