Trump’s 2024 rivals struggle to find message on historic indictments

Southern Baptists GOP Candidates
This combination of 2023 photos shows, from left, former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. “There is a segment of the white evangelical populace, they’re looking for a way to distance themselves with the deal with the devil they made in 2016″ in supporting Trump, said the Rev. Joel Bowman Sr. of Louisville, Kentucky, who was among several Black pastors who left the SBC in 2021 in dismay over what they saw as a racial backlash in a denomination that had once formally repented of its forebears’ racism. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Meg Kinnard) Charlie Neibergall, Meg Kinnard/AP

Trump’s 2024 rivals struggle to find message on historic indictments

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In the wake of an unprecedented indictment from the Department of Justice, former President Donald Trump has remained adamant he is innocent of the charges and that he will win his third presidential bid for the White House.

“This day will go down in infamy, and Joe Biden will forever be remembered as not only the most corrupt president in the history of our country but, perhaps even more importantly, the president who, together with a band of his closest thugs, misfits, and Marxists, has tried to destroy American democracy,” Trump told an audience of supporters at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club Tuesday evening.

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“They will fail, and we will win bigger and better than ever before,” he continued.

Trump’s GOP rivals, however, have equivocated on how to handle the historic nature of Trump’s legal woes, with some who have attacked the Justice Department only to later tone down their accusations and others who have placed the blame solely on Trump’s shoulders. Trump’s challengers already faced a difficult journey to wrestling away the former president’s control of the GOP. With the indictments, they must now walk an even more delicate tightrope between persuading his supporters to back them instead without incurring Trump’s infamous wrath.

The former president is facing 37 criminal counts stemming from allegations he mishandled classified documents after leaving the White House, obstructed justice, and made false statements. He pleaded not guilty to the charges in a Miami courthouse on Tuesday.

At first, rivals like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley argued, “This is not how justice should be pursued in our country,” in her first public comments on the indictments. “The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards, and vendetta politics.”

Haley changed her tune on Tuesday after the indictment was unsealed, saying that Trump’s actions were “reckless.”

“If this indictment is true, if what it says is actually the case, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security,” Haley told Fox News. “More than that, I’m a military spouse. My husband’s about to deploy this weekend. This puts all of our military men and women in danger.”

Similarly, former Vice President Mike Pence at first said he hoped the DOJ wouldn’t move forward on indicting Trump. When the indictment was announced last week Pence, called for transparency from Attorney General Merrick Garland. “We have to protect our nation’s secrets and my only hope is, as we learn about the facts of this indictment next week, that the American people will see in this case that it would meet a high standard necessary to justify the unprecedented federal indictment of a former president of the United States by the current president of the United States’s Justice Department and by a potential rival,” Pence told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Then on Tuesday evening, Pence changed his message. “Having read the indictment, these are very serious allegations. And I can’t defend what is alleged,” Pence said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “But the president is entitled to his day in court, he’s entitled to bring a defense, and I want to reserve judgment until he has the opportunity to respond.”

Pence also attacked Trump for allegedly storing sensitive national defense documents at his Mar-a-Lago Florida residence. “Even the inadvertent release of that kind of information could compromise our national security and the safety of our armed forces,” Pence said. “And, frankly, having two members of our immediate family serving in the armed forces of the United States, I will never diminish the importance of protecting our nation’s secrets.”

Some 2024 rivals refused to come to Trump’s aid, instead blaming the former president’s inaction as the cause for his second indictment in recent months. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put it bluntly during a CNN town hall event Monday evening. “When did we get to the point we’re always playing with our adversaries for the weakness of our candidates?” he asked.

“He took documents he wasn’t supposed to take. He kept it when they asked him back for them. They got a grand jury subpoena; he refused to comply. They raided his home finally because he refused to comply,” Christie argued.

Likewise, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson pushed back against the Republican defense of Trump. “I think it’s a mistake for the Republican Party to jump so quickly without really knowing all the facts,” he told the Washington Examiner over the weekend. As a former House impeachment manager during former President Bill Clinton’s trial, Hutchinson called it a “disservice” for Republican leaders to decry the prosecution as a political stunt.

Others like Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) are taking a cautious approach. Scott called the indictment against Trump “a serious case with serious allegations” during a Monday campaign appearance in South Carolina. He then went on to criticize the nation’s justice system.

Longshot candidate and venture capitalist Vivek Ramaswamy publicly called for rivals to promise they will pardon Trump if he is convicted outside the Miami courthouse where Trump was arraigned.

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Curiously, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Trump’s closest competitor, has been largely mum after initially defending the former president. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation,” he tweeted in the wake of the indictment news. “Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter?”

DeSantis had appeared to be more willing to attack Trump after launching his presidential campaign but with the indictment, it appears his strategy is to lay low as Trump deals with the fallout.

Reese Gorman contributed to this report.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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