WASHINGTON — Top congressional Republicans rallied behind Donald Trump on Thursday night, framing the former president's indictment as nothing more than President Joe Biden’s “weaponizing” his Justice Department against his likeliest 2024 political opponent.
“It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him. Joe Biden kept classified documents for decades,” tweeted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., a Trump loyalist. “I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with President Trump against this grave injustice.
“House Republicans will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable," McCarthy wrote.
Thursday's indictment came out of a probe by special counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland. Garland has been scrupulous about not getting involved in the probe, and he said Smith would make his own charging decisions. Biden has also emphasized his distance from the probe, and the White House said it learned of the indictment from media reports Thursday evening.
Still, many Republicans allied with Trump echoed the speaker. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., tweeted that it was a “sham indictment”: “Let’s be clear about what’s happening: Joe Biden is weaponizing his Department of Justice against his own political rival.”
And House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, D-N.Y., who heads the messaging operation, said in a statement that Trump’s indictment “is the epitome of the illegal and unprecedented weaponization of the federal government against Joe Biden’s leading opponent, Donald J. Trump.”
Across the Capitol, the message was much the same from key Trump allies. Freshman Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, whom Trump endorsed in his election last year, accused Biden of trying to “steal” the next election.
“Biden is attacking his most likely 2024 opponent,” Vance tweeted. “He’s using the justice system to preemptively steal the 2024 election. This is what’s happening, plain and simple.”
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., and other members of the Senate Republican leadership team remained noticeably silent.
Shortly after Trump announced on Truth Social that he was being indicted, NBC News confirmed that a federal grand jury in Florida had indicted him on seven counts related to his mishandling of classified documents.
Several GOP lawmakers said they received text messages Thursday night from Trump’s political messaging operation that included both Trump’s Truth Social post and his video message, in which he declared his innocence.
“It’s election interference at the highest level. There’s never been anything like what’s happened. I’m an innocent man. I’m an innocent person,” Trump said in the video.
The Trump team is closely monitoring which members of leadership have defended him on Twitter, sources said.
Democrats, meanwhile, said Trump's indictment — the first federal criminal charges against a former president — should give Americans faith in the justice system.
Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., a former federal prosecutor who was the lead counsel in Trump’s first impeachment inquiry in the House, praised Smith in a statement, calling him "a career prosecutor of the utmost integrity."
The U.S. was founded on the principle that “no person, not even a former President, is above the law," he said.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the ranking member on the Oversight Committee and the lead manager for Trump’s second impeachment trial, pushed back against the GOP.
“Dangerous rhetoric about a ‘two-tiered system of justice’ — discriminating against the rich no less — in order to prop up the twice-impeached former president not only undermines the Department of Justice but betrays the essential principle of justice that no one is above the commands of law, not even a former President or a self-proclaimed billionaire,” he said in a statement.
Raskin vowed to pursue oversight, saying Democrats are “determined to understand the full sweep of Trump’s unlawful possession of hundreds of government documents and his offenses against our government and people.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com