Many Republicans, including Donald Trump’s 2024 rivals for the White House, reacted with fury in the spring when the former president was indicted by a New York prosecutor. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called the move “un-American.” Republican chairwoman Ronna McDaniel described it as a “blatant abuse of power” that “endangers us all.” Former vice president Mike Pence called it “an outrage.”
But those same people initially offered more tempered reactions on Tuesday, when Trump faced his second major indictment by a federal prosecutor, this time for his role in efforts to disrupt the transfer of power after the 2020 election.
DeSantis’s first response railed against the “weaponization of the federal government” but withheld judgment on the indictment itself, which the governor said he had not read.
McDaniel did not release a statement.
And Pence, who testified before the grand jury that issued the latest indictment, appeared minutes after the announcement at a virtual town hall for Principles First, a bipartisan group made up largely of Republicans who have condemned Trump’s actions after the 2020 election. Pence was praised by the moderator for “standing in the breach” on Jan. 6, 2021, and “doing what the Constitution requires.”
“The former president is entitled to the presumption of innocence but with this indictment, his candidacy means more talk about January 6th and more distractions,” Pence said in a statement Tuesday.
The shifts reflect both the differing substance of Trump’s legal troubles and the growing combativeness of the Republican primary field, most of whom will meet later this month for their first debate. While the first indictment concerned allegedly falsified business records and personal hush money payments, the subsequent, federal indictments since have accused Trump of mishandling classified records and conspiring to undermine the fundamental integrity of the nation’s electoral system.
The four-count, 45-page indictment Tuesday accused Trump of three distinct conspiracies, charging that he conspired to defraud the United States, conspired to obstruct an official proceeding and conspired against people’s rights in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Other candidates for president reacted to the news by directly criticizing the party’s most recent leader. Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson reiterated his calls for Trump to pause his campaign until he resolved the indictments against him.
“Let me be crystal clear: Trump’s presidential bid is driven by an attempt to stay out of prison and scam his supporters into footing his legal bills,” said former congressman Will Hurd of Texas, who is running for president with little support in public polls.
After Trump announced on his Truth Social page his expectation of an indictment, allies began circulating a fundraising solicitation on social media. His campaign sent out an email asking for money that would be split between his campaign and his leadership PAC, which has been funding much of his legal defense.
“As you know, I did nothing wrong. It’s well-documented that I told Americans to act ‘PEACEFULLY’ and discouraged the use of any violence,” the email read. “This is nothing but an egregious act of Election Interference and a final act of desperation from Crooked Joe as he crashes in the polls.”
Trump’s legal troubles have so far presented short-term boosts to his political fortunes, as measured both in polling and small-dollar fundraising, with Republican voters rallying to his defense. Rival campaigns have complained about the resulting boost in free media coverage he has received that often shuts out their messages. Both metrics showed increases after the FBI raided his Mar-a-Lago estate last year, after his indictment by New York prosecutors for alleged hush money payments and after his indictment by federal prosecutors for his alleged mishandling of classified documents.
Leaders of Never Back Down, an outside group supporting DeSantis, took out millions in advertising this spring, around the time of Trump’s first indictment by New York prosecutors, in an effort to blunt the rise in polling they expected in early nominating states. They say their data subsequently showed DeSantis’s polling held up better in states where their ads ran, despite overall declines through the summer months. Rival campaigns say they also believe the boosts from the indictments have been wearing off, a fact that has been reflected in recent filings to Trump’s joint fundraising committee and national polling averages.
DeSantis — who, though weakened, remains Trump’s most formidable rival — has since stepped up his attacks on the former president, arguing that Trump will face an electability problem in a general election. He has also said that Trump should have “come out more forcefully” to stop the riots at the Capitol after they began. But DeSantis has been careful not to tie that argument directly to the federal investigations of Trump, which DeSantis has argued result from an overzealous and politicized Justice Department.
“There are too many voters who are just not going to vote for him going forward,” DeSantis said of Trump in a Monday interview with Fox News.
DeSantis has said that, if elected president, he would pardon Trump of any federal convictions, following the model of President Gerald Ford’s pardon of his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon. Other Republican candidates, including Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), have avoided giving definitive answers on the question of a pardon, saying that it was premature to make such a determination before a trial.
Vivek Ramaswamy remained consistent with his previous condemnations of the Trump prosecutions. “This is un-American & I commit to pardoning Trump for this indictment. Donald Trump isn’t the cause of what happened on Jan. 6,” he said in a statement.
Scott also reiterated his previous criticism of prosecutors, raising the issue of the ongoing prosecution of President Biden’s son Hunter over tax and gun charges.
“I remain concerned about the weaponization of Biden’s DOJ and its immense power used against political opponents,” he said in a statement. “What we see today are two different tracks of justice. One for political opponents and another for the son of the current president.”
Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor who has struggled to get polling traction, has said he would not support a pardon. He has also predicted that the short-term boost the prosecutions have provided Trump will wear off in the coming months.
“Over the long term, you have to believe that people are going to understand the seriousness of it,” Hutchinson said about Trump’s legal jeopardy, in an interview before the latest indictment. “People are going to understand the challenge of being the president, or even being a candidate, with multiple indictments against you, and that it is going to jeopardize us winning in 2024.”
Trump’s fiercest critic on the campaign trail, Chris Christie, has said he “can’t imagine” pardoning Trump if he has a fair trial. After charges were added to Trump’s federal case over classified documents, Christie, in an appearance on CNN, described Trump’s team as clumsy mobsters.
“These guys were acting like the Corleones with no experience,” he said, a reference to the mob family in the Godfather movie series.
Biden’s reelection campaign declined to comment on the indictment Tuesday. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, another Republican seeking the nomination, did not release a statement.
Pence’s comments Tuesday marked a subtle shift from his recent rhetoric on the trail. He suggested that Trump’s continued candidacy would take attention away from “Joe Biden’s disastrous economic policies afflicting millions across the United States.”
“Our country is more important than one man. Our constitution is more important than any one man’s career,” he said.
Previously he has criticized the Justice Department when faced with questions about more charges against Trump.
“I hope that with the possibility of another indictment coming against the president, I hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said on July 20, when asked about a possible charge over Trump’s actions after the 2020 elections. “The truth is that the Department of Justice has lost credibility.”
Marianne LeVine and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.