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As Donald Trump plots his criminal defense in the classified documents case, the GOP candidates looking to block his political redemption are slowly making political calculations.
In the simplest terms, the growing Republican primary field faces a basic question about the former president – would they pardon him if they were elected to the White House?
The answer, however, is tying some candidates into uncomfortable positions. Ultimately they must explain in very real terms to Republican voters why they are a better option than the twice-impeached and now twice-indicted former president. Maybe later.
Trump not politically hurt by indictment (yet)
Trump, meanwhile, is capitalizing on right-wing backlash to the federal charges, to which he pleaded not guilty earlier this week. He has raised more than $7 million in contributions since news of the indictment broke, according to his campaign – including more than $2 million from a fundraiser at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club hours after his arraignment.
And Trump still maintains a clear lead over his rivals. More than half, 53% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, support Trump compared to 23% for his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to a Quinnipiac University poll that was conducted from June 8 (the day news broke of Trump’s indictment) through June 12. In an ABC News/Ipsos poll fielded after the indictment, more than 60% of Americans thought the charges were serious, but only 38% of Republicans felt the same way.
Trump’s post-indictment power among Republicans shows just how much his base has bought into his narrative that he’s the victim of political persecution and the charges are “election interference” from the Biden administration Justice Department.
However, it’s only been a week since news of indictment, and it’s still very early in the primary. There’s plenty of time for things to change – and for GOP rivals’ messages to evolve.
And then there was one more
At the same time, more Republicans keep getting in – raising the prospect that a splintered field could benefit Trump, allowing him to win with a plurality as he did in 2016. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez entered the race on Thursday, offering himself as a fresh face for the GOP. It remains to be seen, however, whether a party so consumed with its past leader is open to someone new.
It’s not good, but…
None of the Republicans who are running against Trump are exactly defending his retention of classified documents in the bathroom at Mar-a-Lago.
“If this indictment is true, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security,” said former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley during an appearance on Fox News on Tuesday.
“Very bad judgment, no doubt about it,” entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said of the allegations on CNN’s “State of the Union” last Sunday.
The pardon test
But then Ramaswamy doubled down on his pledge to pardon Trump and dared other candidates to do the same.
Haley is interested, arguing during a radio interview that a pardon is “less about guilt and more about what’s good for the country.”
“I think it would be terrible for the country to have a former president in prison for years because of a documents case,” she said on “The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show,” which has been asking all the candidates the pardon question. “So, I would be inclined in favor of a pardon.”
Hold on. Let’s see what happens.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, talking to the same radio show, is among the Republicans who don’t appear ready to commit one way or the other on a pardon.