The potential 2024 Republican primary field quickly coalesced on Thursday around a strategy for responding to former President Donald Trump’s indictment: Attack Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor, but stop short of praising Trump.
If the news of the former president facing more than 30 counts related to business fraud was unprecedented, the reaction from his possible GOP rivals was, in large part, familiar. Rather than risk the backlash from base voters loyal to Trump, ambitious Republicans zeroed in on a liberal foe. It’s a tactic that underscores the former president’s hold over the Republican Party – even when under indictment.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely viewed as Trump’s most formidable potential Republican opponent, did not mention the former president in his response, instead going after “the Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney” – a reference to the billionaire liberal donor George Soros often at the center of conservative conspiracy theories.
“The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. It is un-American,” DeSantis tweeted. “The Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney has consistently bent the law to downgrade felonies and to excuse criminal misconduct. Yet, now he is stretching the law to target a political opponent.”
DeSantis also reiterated that he would not “assist in an extradition request” for Trump, a Florida resident. Trump is expected to appear in court on Tuesday in New York, where he had lived most of his life.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, for years one of Trump’s most ardent defenders before offering some measured criticism after the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol, called the indictment of his former boss “an outrage” and suggested that Bragg was politically motivated.
Pressed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who noted that a grand jury voted to charge Trump, Pence doubled down.
“But when you have an attorney general in New York, a Manhattan DA, that targeted one particular American in their campaigns, I think that offends the notion of the overwhelming majority of the American people who believe in fairness, who believe in equal treatment before the law,” he told Blitzer in an interview Thursday evening.
Bragg already had some name recognition among Republicans who sought to tie his progressive positions on criminal justice – in a city they often depict as being besieged by violent crime – to national Democrats like President Joe Biden. In the run-up to the indictment and then in its immediate aftermath, even those Republicans who have been more willing to criticize Trump denounced Bragg’s investigation as a political stunt or an abuse of power.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, another Republican weighing a presidential bid, sent a similar message on social media. Like DeSantis and others, he focused on Bragg and ignored the substance of the charges against Trump.
“It is beyond belief that District Attorney Alvin Bragg has indicted a former President and current presidential candidate for pure political gain,” Youngkin said. “Arresting a presidential candidate on a manufactured basis should not happen in America.”
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations, is the only Republican heavyweight apart from Trump to formally declare her candidacy. She too toed a middle ground, tweeting, “This is more about revenge than it is about justice,” and posted a clip of a recent Fox News interview in which she denounced Bragg’s case as a “political prosecution.”
Another Trump Cabinet official considering a primary run, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accused Bragg of “undermining America’s confidence in our legal system.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who has been making swings through Iowa, called Trump’s indictment a “travesty” and railed against Bragg and the “far left” in a statement.
“This pro-criminal New York DA has failed to uphold the law for violent criminals, yet weaponized the law against political enemies,” Scott said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a more ardent Trump critic than other potential candidates, offered a more measured take, reiterating his opposition to Trump’s attempt to win back the White House, but still saving his toughest criticism for the prosecutor.
“It is a dark day for America when a former President is indicted on criminal charges. While the grand jury found credible facts to support the charges, it is important that the presumption of innocence follows Mr. Trump,” Hutchinson said in a statement.
He added: “Finally, it is essential that the decision on America’s next President be made at the ballot box and not in the court system. Donald Trump should not be the next President, but that should be decided by the voters.”
But even as the GOP falls in line behind Trump, the political fallout remains unclear. Trump commands a deeply loyal following and leads in most early primary polls. Still, voters largely rejected his favored candidates during the midterms and his indictment will raise further questions about his viability in 2024.
For his part, Trump has been consistent in denouncing Bragg and raising money from supporters off the indictment.
“The Deep State will use anything at their disposal to shut down the one political movement that puts YOU first,” his campaign said in a Thursday evening email to supporters.
Even before the indictment, Trump and his allies looked to turn the potential charges against him into a litmus test for his would-be challengers.
“It has been over 24 hours and some people are still quiet. History will judge their silence,” a Trump campaign account tweeted after Trump first said earlier this month that he would be arrested.
Despite not naming names, the target was clear.
DeSantis’ careful efforts to keep Trump at arm’s length while competing for some of his supporters became increasingly fraught in the shadow of an anticipated indictment. The Florida governor road-tested his response in mid-March – criticizing Bragg while also poking at Trump.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said to laughs at a news conference in Panama City. “I just, I can’t speak to that.”
Before that, he told reporters, “I have no interest in getting involved in some manufactured circus by some Soros-DA.”
The “porn star” punchline drew the ire of Trump and was left out of DeSantis’ comments after news broke on Thursday.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who ran against Trump in 2016, then became an ally ahead of the 2020 election before reversing course and insisting this week that he would never back Trump again – was silent on Thursday night. But in a Fox News interview last week, he predicted an indictment would help the former president among Republican voters and criticized Bragg.
“I don’t think this is the crime of the century,” Christie said, “and it’s certainly not a case that is going to improve, as I said, the everyday lives of the citizens of Manhattan.”
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire told CNN’s Jake Tapper earlier this month that he needed more information before making a judgment, instead turning his ire at political opponents and the press.
“I just think that the – not just the media, but really a lot of the Democrats have misplayed this, in terms of building sympathy for the former president,” Sununu said. “And it does drastically change the paradigm as we go into the ’24 election.”
The indictment comes in connection with the yearslong investigation into a hush money scheme involving adult film star Stormy Daniels. The case relates to a $130,000 payment made by Trump’s then-personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to Daniels in late October 2016 to prevent her from going public about an alleged affair with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has denied the affair. According to court filings in Cohen’s own federal prosecution, Trump Org. executives authorized payments to him totaling $420,000 to cover his original $130,000 payment and tax liabilities and reward him with a bonus. Trump has denied knowledge of the payment.
Along with the hush money investigation, Trump has been surrounded by a number of other legal woes. In Atlanta, Fulton County prosecutors are considering bringing racketeering and conspiracy charges in connection with Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. While in Washington, a Justice Department special counsel is looking into Trump’s conduct around the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents.
Veronica Stracqualursi and Kit Maher contributed to this report.