Former President Donald J. Trump faces 37 federal charges that could send him to prison for the remainder of his life, but it’s the rest of the Republican field that’s in the most immediate political trouble.
Advisers working for Mr. Trump’s opponents are facing what some consider an infuriating task: trying to persuade Republican primary voters, who are inured to Mr. Trump’s years of controversies and deeply distrustful of the government, that being criminally charged for holding onto classified documents is a bad thing.
In previous eras, the indictment of a presidential candidate would have been, at a minimum, a political gift for the other candidates, if not an event that spelled the end of the indicted rival’s run. Competitors would have thrilled at the prospect of the front-runner’s spending months tied up in court, with damaging new details steadily dripping out. And they still could be Mr. Trump’s undoing: If he does not end up convicted before November 2024, his latest arrest is not likely win him converts in the general election.
But Mr. Trump’s competitors — counterintuitively, according to the old conventional political wisdom — are actually dreading what threatens to be an endless indictment news cycle that could swallow up the summer. His rivals are desperate to get media coverage for their campaigns, but since the indictment became public last Thursday, as several advisers grumbled, the only way they can get their candidates booked on television is for them to answer questions about Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump is making full use of the trappings of his former office: the big, black sport utility vehicles; the Secret Service agents in dark glasses; the stops at grocery stores and restaurants with entourages, bodyguards and reporters in tow, said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who works on Nikki Haley’s campaign.
“That is powerful stuff when you’re campaigning against it,” Mr. Dawson said.
And there’s no end in sight for indictment season. This was the second time Mr. Trump has been indicted in two months, and he may be indicted at least once more this summer, in Georgia, for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The Georgia prosecutor leading that investigation signaled the timing when she announced last month that most of her staff would work remotely during the first three weeks of August — right when Republican presidential candidates will be preparing for the first debate of the primary season, on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee.
In Mr. Trump’s federal case, in South Florida, it is possible that the former president could face trial in the middle of the primary campaign season.
One Republican candidate who has gotten some airtime, Vivek Ramaswamy, a wealthy entrepreneur and author, did so by flying to Miami from Ohio and addressing journalists gathered outside the courthouse to record Mr. Trump’s arraignment on Tuesday. He promised to pardon Mr. Trump if he gets elected president. He railed against a “donor class” that he asserted was urging him to spurn Mr. Trump, knocked the news media and demanded that every other G.O.P. candidate sign a pledge to pardon Mr. Trump if elected.
“Half the battle is showing up,” Mr. Ramaswamy said in an interview Tuesday night on his way to Iowa. “I am getting my message out, at least the part of it that relates to the events of the day.”
Most of Mr. Trump’s other rivals have tied themselves in knots trying to fashion responses to the indictments that would grab media attention without alienating Republican voters who remain supportive of Mr. Trump.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida came down on Mr. Trump’s side but with little enthusiasm. He subtly rebuked Mr. Trump’s conduct, raising Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified documents as a stand-in for Mr. Trump’s when he said he would have been “court-martialed in a New York minute” had he taken classified documents during his service in the Navy.
But Mr. DeSantis has also used the opportunity to give Republican voters what they mostly want: He has defended Mr. Trump and attacked President Biden and his Justice Department, saying they unfairly target Republicans. On Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis began to roll out his plan to overhaul the “weaponized” F.B.I. and Justice Department. And the main pro-DeSantis super PAC released a video attacking the “Biden D.O.J.” for “indicting the former president.”
Before the indictment was released, former Vice President Mike Pence said on CNN that he hoped Mr. Trump would not be charged because it would “be terribly divisive to the country.”
Then Mr. Pence read the indictment. On Tuesday, he told The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, “These are very serious allegations. And I can’t defend what is alleged. But the president is entitled to his day in court, he’s entitled to bring a defense, and I want to reserve judgment until he has the opportunity to respond.”
Mr. Pence went on to denounce the Biden administration’s Justice Department as politicized — in large part because of its treatment of Mr. Trump — and promised that as president he would clean it up.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Ms. Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, both initially greeted the indictment with condemnation of what they called unequal justice — harsh for Republicans, lenient for Democrats — before tacking on their assessment that the accusations against Mr. Trump were grave and should be taken seriously.
Then, on Tuesday, Ms. Haley volunteered that if elected she, too, would consider pardoning Mr. Trump.
All of those contortions offer an opening to candidates with simpler messages, either for or against Mr. Trump’s prosecution.
“I don’t think they know what they think yet,” said Mr. Ramaswamy of the candidates he called the “finger-in-the-wind class.” Some candidates “tend to serve as mouthpieces for the donors who fund them and the consultants who advise them, and the donors and consultants haven’t figured out their advice yet.”
All of this presumably is music to Mr. Trump’s ears: So long as the news media and his rivals are fighting each other and obsessing about him, he must be winning.
The only Republican presidential candidate so far to speak clearly and forcefully against Mr. Trump over the actions documented in the indictment was former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. He condemned Mr. Trump and showed contempt for Republicans who were directing blame elsewhere.
“We’re in a situation where there are people in my own party who are blaming D.O.J.,” Mr. Christie said on Monday night in a CNN town hall meeting. “How about blame him? He did it.”
He also implored his fellow competitors to focus on the front-runner, not each other, saying 2024 is playing out as a rerun of 2016 when a large field, which included Mr. Christie, sniped at each other and let Mr. Trump gallop away with the nomination.
Tucker Carlson, who was taken off air by Fox News but remains influential with the Republican base, put out a video on Twitter on Tuesday night that captures what Mr. Trump’s rivals are up against. Mr. Carlson sought to portray the federal indictment as proof that Mr. Trump was “the one guy with an actual shot of becoming president” who was feared by the Washington establishment. The clip is an implied rebuke of Mr. DeSantis and comes close to an endorsement of Mr. Trump.
It is too soon after the indictment to draw solid conclusions about how Republican voters are processing the news. But the early data bodes well for Mr. Trump and ominously for his opponents. In a CBS News poll released on Sunday, only 7 percent of likely Republican primary voters said the indictment would lower their opinion of Mr. Trump. Twice as many said the indictment would change their view of him “for the better.”
An adviser to one of Mr. Trump’s rivals, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, admitted he was depressed at how Republican voters were receiving the news of what he considered to be devastating facts unearthed by the special counsel, Jack Smith.
“I think the reality is there’s such enormous distrust of the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. after the Hillary years and the Russiagate investigation that it appears that no other fact set will persuade Republican voters otherwise right now,” the adviser said.
Mr. Dawson, who is backing Ms. Haley, said Mr. Trump’s poll numbers were likely to rise in the coming weeks, along with the sentiment that the government cannot be trusted.
The other candidates are gambling that they have the luxury of time.
Mr. Christie has stepped up to bloody the former president with his attacks, which are unlikely to help Mr. Christie’s standing but may help other Republicans in the race: those who are refraining but “drafting” behind Mr. Christie, as one adviser put it, perhaps wishfully, using a horse-racing term.
As more information spills out ahead of the former president’s trial, especially about the specifics of what was contained in the classified documents that Mr. Trump held onto — details of battle plans and nuclear programs — the severity of what crimes the former president is charged with may slowly seep in.
That’s the hope, at least, for Mr. Trump’s rivals who languish far behind him in polls.
“Let that little pop blow up, then get out of here, let the voters read the term paper, and let it sink in,” Mr. Dawson said. He added, of Mr. Trump: “People are going to start questioning his sanity.”
Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. @jonathanvswan
Jonathan Weisman is a Chicago-based political correspondent, veteran journalist and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” His career in journalism stretches back 30 years. @jonathanweisman
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