Under normal circumstances, Republican presidential candidates would pounce on a chief rival facing the prospect of prison time. But when news broke that the Justice Department indicted Donald Trump for allegedly hoarding national-security secrets and conspiring to obstruct the government’s efforts to retrieve them, most of his primary opponents dutifully defended the former President instead.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott all cast Trump as a victim of political persecution. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, currently Trump’s top challenger in the 2024 GOP primary, took aim at the Biden Administration rather than the man blocking his path to the nomination. “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” DeSantis tweeted. “Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter?”
The decision to pull punches when it comes to the frontrunner in the field is a matter of deep frustration to Trump’s critics. “You have to drive the wedge now,” says Reed Galen, a former Republican operative who co-founded the NeverTrump group The Lincoln Project. “Every day that goes by that these people have lined up behind him, or at least not attacked him, they are saying to other Republican voters: He’s in charge of the party.”
The 2024 candidates’ reaction to the indictment doesn’t only reflect a calculation that Trump still has a grip on the party’s base. It also suggests they believe that the greatest political threat to Trump’s bid for a third presidential nomination may not be his opponents, but rather the mounting number of prosecutors bringing criminal charges against him in the middle of an election year.
On Tuesday at 3 p.m., Trump will appear in a federal courthouse in Miami to face a 38-count indictment on a range of charges: willful retention of national defense information, conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding a document or record, corruptly concealing a document in a federal investigation, scheme to conceal, and making false statements and representations. The charges, brought by Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith, mark the second time in roughly two months that Trump has been criminally indicted. He faces trial in Manhattan in March 2024 for allegedly falsifying business records to conceal hush-money payments to a porn star. The classified documents case could be a prelude to another indictment in a separate special counsel investigation by Smith into his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump may also face charges later this summer in Georgia, where Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has empaneled a grand jury to probe Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election result in the state.
The upshot is that when Republican voters begin casting their ballots in early 2024, they are likely to do so with the knowledge that Trump is facing criminal trials in at least two and possibly four separate venues. The outcome of at least some of those cases may not be known until after the GOP has nominated its presidential candidate.
Trump allies say they believe the second criminal indictment of the former President is likely to cause the party’s voters to rally around him, just as many did after he was charged in New York. They see no reason why his diehard supporters—who make up roughly 30% to 35% of the party—would bail on him now. “It’s been seven years of these investigations and there’s still no cold feet,” says Alex Bruesewitz, a GOP consultant and CEO of the Trump-allied firm X Strategies. “The people aren’t going to leave Trump.”
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For Trump’s opponents, navigating that hold on the base has proven challenging. “If you’re a Republican candidate, and you try to make the case that he can’t win because of all of this, you’re essentially embracing the alleged conspiracy Trump is promoting that all of this is meant to stop him from running,” David Axelrod, a former chief strategist to President Barack Obama, recently told TIME. Two of Trump’s challengers, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, have confronted him on the trail over his legal challenges, and they are each polling at less than one percent.
But much of the field appears to have settled on a unique strategy: don’t go full-throttle against Trump. Hope the legal system can take him out instead.
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