Looming Trump indictment puts his GOP competitors in a tough spot
Here’s a look at how the former president’s likely rivals for the Republican nomination are seeking to navigate the issue.
The expected indictment of Donald Trump by a Democratic prosecutor in New York City has put his rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination in a bind.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has not yet charged the former president in the case involving an alleged hush money payoff to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who says she had an affair with Trump.
But for now, the broad consensus among Republican strategists and campaign advisers who spoke with Yahoo News is that a criminal indictment will likely help Trump in the primary.
This is because GOP primary voters, generally speaking, still approve of Trump and agree with him that the myriad investigations he faces are “witch hunts.” And even those Republican voters looking for alternatives in the 2024 primary could rally to him in the face of what they perceive to be a partisan effort by an overzealous prosecutor.
“Anyone in office or seeking office should be denouncing this in clear-cut ways,” said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative legal advocacy group Judicial Watch and a staunch Trump ally. “Checking the box, saying you’re concerned, isn’t going to cut it.”
Now Trump’s Republican rivals are scrambling to figure out what tone to take. And some of them are trying to do two things at once: denouncing the possible indictment while at the same time using it, to the extent they can, against the GOP frontrunner — in part by just reminding voters what Trump is alleged to have done.
Here’s a look at how Trump’s likely rivals for the nomination are seeking to navigate the issue.
In an appearance on ABC News, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said “the circus continues” when asked about Trump’s preemptive response to the possible indictment.
Trump “only profits and does well in chaos and turmoil,” said Christie, a former prosecutor thought to be mulling a run for the presidency. “And so he wants to create the chaos and turmoil on his terms.”
Christie sounded a skeptical note as to whether an indictment could help Trump in the primary, saying, “Being indicted never helps anybody.” But he also said he expects most Americans not to take the charges very seriously.
“I don’t think there’s many Americans that don’t believe that Donald Trump had an affair with Stormy Daniels and that don’t believe he paid her money ... to keep it quiet,” Christie said. “So I don’t think that the American people probably see this as a huge crime.”
At a Monday press conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — widely seen as Trump’s top competitor for the Republican nomination — was more forthright in his denunciation of the possible indictment than Christie was. But he too made sure to mention just what Trump is being accused of doing.
After attacking Bragg as a left-wing radical looking to “impose a political agenda on society at the expense of the rule of law and public safety,” DeSantis quickly made a detour to Trump, without mentioning him by name.
“I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just — I can't speak to that,” DeSantis said.
In an interview with Piers Morgan published in the New York Post on Tuesday, DeSantis doubled down on his criticism of Trump, saying the allegations involving Stormy Daniels are “outside my wheelhouse” and “not something I can speak to.”
“At the end of the day as a leader, you really want to look to people like our Founding Fathers, like what type of character — it’s not saying that you don’t ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think what type of character are you bringing?” DeSantis said.
Former U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the only other major candidate in the race, was only critical of Bragg while speaking to Fox News on Monday.
“From everything I’ve seen from this New York district attorney is that this is something he’d be doing for political points,” Haley said. “And I think what we know is that when you get into political prosecutions like this, it’s more about revenge than it is about justice.”
“You never want to condone any sort of prosecution that’s being politicized, because we know that that’s just political revenge,” she added. “And I think we have seen enough of that over the past few years.”
One week after blasting Trump in his starkest terms yet for the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, former Vice President Mike Pence, who is eyeing a possible summer launch for the White House, defended Trump’s call for protests in response to the expected indictment.
“The frustration the American people feel about what they sense is a two-tiered justice system in this country, I think is well founded,” Pence said Sunday on ABC News. But he added that protests should occur only in “a peaceful and lawful manner.”
Otherwise, Pence has largely kept his fire trained on Bragg. “I think many Americans are taken aback at the unprecedented indictment of a former president, but also the fact that the Manhattan DA, in the midst of a crime wave in New York City, then says that indicting the former president is his highest priority,” he said Monday in Iowa.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who has floated a possible run for the White House, said he felt Trump might benefit from an indictment.
“I can tell you, I think it's building a lot of sympathy for the former president,” Sununu said Sunday on CNN.
He added later: “You know, there are other issues that really take precedence in terms of where this country needs to go, what we need to do to get stuff done, how we manage our budgets, how we secure the border.”
The only one of Trump’s current or would-be opponents to lean into full-throated support of him has been Vivek Ramaswamy, a little-known long-shot candidate for the nomination.
Ramaswamy, who has barely registered in most polling of the 2024 field despite being only the third candidate to jump into the race, has won plaudits from Trump’s supporters for consistently speaking out on Twitter to support the former president.
Shortly after news of the possible indictment broke, Ramaswamy wrote that it would be a “national disaster” and asked Bragg to drop the case. And the following day he pressed Haley and DeSantis to weigh in on the issue as well.
“I called on my fellow GOP candidates @RonDeSantisFL and @NikkiHaley to join me in condemning the potential Trump indictment because those of us *running against Trump* can most credibly call on the Manhattan DA to abandon this disastrously politicized prosecution,” Ramaswamy wrote.
Those staying silent
A handful of possible contenders have remained silent on the issue. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — all of whom have toyed with possible White House bids — have yet to say where they stand.