The federal indictment against former President Donald J. Trump has left the Republican Party—and its rivals for the party’s nomination—with a stark choice between deferring a system of law and order that has been central to the identities of the party or a more radical avenue of resistance, against the Democratic Party in power and against the nation’s highest institutions that Trump now mocks.
How the men and women who want to lead the party to the 2024 election respond to the former president’s charges in the coming months will have huge implications for the future of the GOP
So far, the declared candidates for president who are not Mr. Trump are divided into three camps regarding his federal indictment last Thursday: those who have strongly supported him and his insistence that the indictment is a politically driven means to get him to deny a second white person. House term, such as Vivek Ramaswamy; those who have urged Americans to take the allegations seriously, such as Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson; and those who have been on opposite sides of both camps have condemned the charge but urged voters to move past Mr. Trump’s leadership, such as Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.
The trick, for all of Mr. Trump’s competitors, is striking the balance between exploiting the anger of key party voters who remain loyal to him, and winning their support as an alternate nominee.
Mr Trump is due to appear in court in Florida on Tuesday. The danger for Republicans after the January 6 riot in the Capitol is that encouraging too much anger could lead to chaos — and what pollsters call their party’s “ghettoization”: restricted to minority status by unwilling voters are the fervent beliefs rejected by the majority.
That point was exposed on Sunday by a new CBS News/YouGov poll that found that 80 percent of Americans outside of major Republican voters saw a national security risk in Trump’s handling of classified nuclear and military documents, while only 38 percent of those likely Republican primary voters saw such a risk.
In the same poll, only 7 percent of Republicans said the indictment had changed their view of the former president for the worse; 14 percent said their opinion had changed for the better; and the majority, 61 percent, said their opinion would not change. More than three-quarters of Republican primary voters said the charges were politically motivated.
A separate ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 61 percent of Americans viewed the allegations as serious, up from 52 percent in April when pollsters asked about the mishandling of classified documents. 38 percent of Republicans said the allegations were serious, also up from 21 percent this spring. But only about half of Americans said Mr Trump should be indicted, unchanged from April.
“Base voters see the double standard in politics. I keep hearing, ‘When are they going to sue the Bidens?’,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman and senior adviser to Ms. Haley, a former South Carolina governor and Trump’s ambassador to the United States. the United Nations. . But, he added, “65 percent of our primary voters are just tired of all the drama and I think they’re looking for a new generation of Republicans to get us out of the wilderness.”
Ms. Haley epitomized that balancing act, saying in one statement, “This is not how justice should be pursued in our country,” and also, “It’s time to move beyond the endless drama.”
Mr. Trump’s biggest rival for the 2024 nomination, Mr. DeSantis, the governor of Florida, caught the same spirit when he mused Friday that he “would have been court-martialed in New York in a minute” if he had classified documents taken during his service in the navy. He was referring to Hillary Clinton — who has returned this week as a Republican bogeyman — and her misuse of classified materials as Secretary of State, but the double meaning was clear, as was when he said, “There must be one standard of justice in this country. Let’s impose it on everyone.”
Those urging voters to read Trump’s indictment — mishandling highly classified documents about some of the country’s most sensitive secrets and his subsequent moves to obstruct law enforcement — are a lone group within the broader Republican Party. Only two former governors running for president — both former prosecutors — Mr. Christie of New Jersey and Mr. Hutchinson of Arkansas, are aligned with a scattering of other leaders, such as Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who was the only Republican senator to vote to impeach Mr. Trump from office twice.
But their voices are likely to be amplified in the coming days by media outlets eager to give them a microphone. Mr. Christie is holding a town hall meeting on NewsMadura Monday night, while Mr. Hutchinson, the longest of all longshots for the nomination, has given a spate of interviews.
“The Republican Party should not just dismiss this case,” Hutchinson said in an interview. “These are serious allegations for which a grand jury has found probable cause.”
On Sunday morning, Mr. Trump’s former Attorney General William P. Barr weighed in on Fox News Sunday, say he was “shocked by the degree of sensitivity of these documents and how many there were.”
“If even half is true, it’s toast,” said Mr. Barr. “It’s a very detailed indictment, and it’s very, very damning. This idea of presenting Trump here as a victim — a victim of a witch hunt — is ludicrous.”
Trump’s critics also have a call that goes to the center of the party’s identity: law and order. Republicans are still attacking the Democrats for the post-pandemic rise in street crime, just as they are attacking the FBI, the Justice Department, the special prosecutor and the federal grand jury system.
“If Congress has the ability to oversee the Justice Department, I urged them to do so forcefully and honestly and to ask all the questions they need,” Christie told NewsMadura. “But what we should also do is hold people in positions of responsibility to account and say: if you act badly, there should be sanctions. Costs must be paid.”
But voters eager to believe Mr. Trump’s dark tales of a nefarious “deep state,” of “communists” bent on destroying America, are encouraged by candidates who are ostensibly Mr. Trump’s rivals. To them, the calculation looks set to catch the former president’s voters as his legal troubles finally put an end to his political career.
“Personally, I am very skeptical of everything in that indictment,” Mr. Ramaswamy, a wealthy entrepreneur and author, said on NewsMadura’s “State of the Unionon Sunday, adding, “Personally, I don’t have any faith in those vague accusations.”
Other candidates were less blunt but equally willing to defend the integrity of the justice system, a system, So said South Carolina Senator Tim Scott“where the scales are weighed” to conservatives.
“If you want to reach President Trump, you have to go through me, and 75 million Americans like me. And most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA,” said Kari Lake, the unsuccessful candidate for governor of Arizona.
More surprising were the voices of the Trumpist right expressing concern — about the allegations and their impact on the future of the Republican Party. When Charlie Kirk of the pro-Trump Turning Point USA called on every other Republican candidate for president to drop out of the race in solidarity with Mr. Trump, Ann Coulter, the bomber right, responded, “That’s nothing! I call on EVERY REPUBLICAN to commit suicide in solidarity with Trump!” – recognize that a rally around the former president could send the party into oblivion.
Mike Cernovich, a lawyer and provocateur on the right, criticized the indictment as a “selective prosecution,” but also said, “Trump fell into this trap.”
How the party and its 2024 candidates react will matter, for the country and for the political destiny of the party. The leading Republican voter may support Mr. Trump, but most Americans most likely will not. It’s a dilemma, acknowledged Clifford Young, president of US public affairs at polling and marketing firm Ipsos.
“For the average American in the middle, they’re shocked,” he said, “but for the grassroots not only is support solidified, they don’t believe what’s happening.”
“Damn,” he added, “they believe he won the election.”