The Republican field for President has gotten crowded this month, but Donald Trump remains firmly in the driver’s seat. The former President is still leading in polls and the other candidates have found themselves frequently framing their own bids in relation to Trump’s.
The latest example: candidates have had to spend a lot of time explaining whether they would pardon Trump if he is convicted for allegedly mishandling classified documents. The former president last week pleaded not guilty to 37 criminal charges.
On Tuesday, the judge overseeing the case set a tentative trial date for August 14, though pretrial motions and other issues are likely to push the legal proceedings back much further.
The federal indictment against Trump follows Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment in April over hush-money payments Trump paid to a porn star. A future President wouldn’t be able to pardon Trump over that case, but could in the federal matter.
The latest indictment has clarified how much the candidates are willing to continue to support Trump as his legal troubles mount, even as they run against him for the GOP nomination. On the question of a possible pardon, the former President has ardent defenders who seem poised to pardon, detractors who suggest the prosecution is warranted, and a few who are critical of Trump’s actions but not ruling out a pardon.
Here’s where the former president’s rivals fall on the Trump-support scale.
Partial to a Pardon
Of Trump’s rivals, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has come most fiercely to the former President’s defense. “It would be much easier for me to win this election if Trump weren’t in the race, but I stand for principles over politics,” Ramaswamy wrote in a statement soon after news of the indictment broke. “I commit to pardon Trump promptly on January 20, 2025 and to restore the rule of law in our country.”
Like other candidates, Ramaswamy has accused the Department of Justice of going after the former president for political reasons. But he has gone further than others, joining the former President in urging Republican rivals to promise to pardon him.
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley also said she would “be inclined in favor of a pardon,” during an interview on the “Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, explaining, “When you look at a pardon, the issue is less about guilt and more about what’s good for the country.” Haley initially accused the DOJ of overreach in its investigation. However, after the indictment was unsealed, she also slammed Trump as having been “incredibly reckless” on Fox News, while simultaneously suggesting the department had lost credibility.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has also suggested he would pardon Trump, saying on Fox Business’ “Varney & Co,” “I think he’s entitled to due process like everybody else in this country. If I become the President of the United States, what I think is appropriate is for a president to use the pardon power to heal the country, and that goes for both Republicans and Democrats.”
Suarez, who has said he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020, appeared outside the Miami courthouse where the former president was arraigned last week and told Politico that he had a friendly chat with Trump about security arrangements.
Another presidential candidate, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, told Scripps News he is “very likely” to pardon Trump.
The Murky Middle
Multiple candidates have responded to questions about the case by criticizing Trump’s actions but suggesting the Justice Department went too far in pursuing criminal charges.
Former Vice President Mike Pence did not promise to pardon Trump, but did tell “Meet the Press” that he would “clean house” at the Justice Department, and said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” that “the former president has a right to his day in court” and that he “can’t believe that politics didn’t play some role here.” However, he also expressed concern that classified material could have fallen into the wrong hands. “This indictment contains serious charges, and I cannot defend what is alleged,” Pence said.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also accused the Justice Department of being hypocritical and politically-motivated, tweeting, “The DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.” But he has not committed to pardoning Trump, nor has he ruled it out.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott took the same tack, accusing the justice system of “targeting and hunting Republicans” while calling the indictment a “serious case with serious allegations.” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has also implied that there’s a double standard at the DOJ without mentioning Trump by name.
The Donald Detractors
Two candidates have been less measured in their criticism. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who signaled when he entered the race that he wouldn’t pull punches against Trump, attacked the former President following the indictment. In a CNN town hall, he called Trump’s conduct “inexcusable, in my opinion, for someone who wants to be President of the United States.” And while he issued some general criticism of the Justice Department, he suggested the evidence in the case “looks pretty damning,” and pinned the blame on Trump himself, all the while slamming some of his GOP rivals for going after the DOJ instead.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was similarly critical of other candidates for their deference to Trump, telling MSNBC that it is “simply wrong to be discussing a pardon.” Despite the requirement that participants in the upcoming Republican presidential debates pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee, the former governor said he won’t vote for Trump if he’s convicted.
In a statement following news of the indictment, Hutchinson said, “Donald Trump’s actions—from his willful disregard for the Constitution to his disrespect for the rule of law—should not define our nation or the Republican Party. This is a sad day for our country. While Donald Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence, the ongoing criminal proceedings will be a major distraction. This reaffirms the need for Donald Trump to respect the office and end his campaign.”
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