By Tim Reid
(Reuters) -Senior Republicans in Congress rallied behind former President Donald Trump after he was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury investigating hush money payments to a porn star, calling the charges a weaponization of the justice system by Democrats.
Republicans' ferocious response to the indictment on Thursday reflected the grip Trump still holds on the party and many of its voters as he seeks a return to the White House in the 2024 election.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said the indictment "weaponized our sacred system of justice" against Trump.
Elise Stefanik, another member of the Republican House leadership, called the indictment a "political witch hunt and a dark day for America".
Rick Scott, a U.S. senator from Florida, called the indictment a "political vendetta against President Trump", while fellow Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas called it "a catastrophic escalation in the weaponization of the justice system."
Trump called the indictment a "political persecution."
He primed Republicans to react by declaring last week that he was going to be indicted over alleged payments to the adult film star Stormy Daniels. In the past week, according to Trump's campaign, he raised nearly $2 million.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she received the money in exchange for keeping silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump in 2006. Trump has denied the allegations.
Trump is the front-runner in the 2024 Republican field, with the support of 44% of Republicans in a Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Monday, ahead of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' 30% support.
But the indictment also poses perils for Trump as he seeks re-election.
DeSantis, Trump's closest rival for the nomination, has not yet officially declared his 2024 run. He is making a lack of personal controversy a plank of his nascent campaign. Opinion polls suggest many Republican voters are seeking an alternative to Trump.
DeSantis on Thursday did not mention details of the case but joined Republican condemnation of the indictment, calling it on Twitter "un-American" and "the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda."
On March 20, DeSantis made a veiled attack on Trump by saying: "I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair." The comment drew criticism from Trump loyalists.
Democrats in the House also weighed in. Ted Lieu, a House Democrat, called the indictment a "horrible precedent" but necessary if Trump committed crimes.
Jamaal Bowman, a fellow House Democrat, said: "It's time we ensure Trump is banned from running for any public office again."
(Reporting by Tim Reid; editing by Ross Colvin and Cynthia Osterman)