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The Republican presidential field is growing by the week with candidates eager to push the party past Donald Trump. Yet few of the former president’s rivals sought to capitalize on the latest indictment against him Thursday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and several lower-tier candidates turned their criticism on the Justice Department, castigating federal law enforcement for years of investigations involving the twice-impeached and now twice-indicted Trump, who still faces separate investigations on other matters.
Others, like Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; former Vice President Mike Pence; and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, remained silent or said they were waiting for more information to be released.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only prominent Republican in the race to take a harder line against Trump, reiterating an earlier call for him to withdraw from the race.
A federal grand jury indicted Trump on Thursday on seven criminal charges in connection with his mishandling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. He is the first former president to face federal criminal charges. Earlier this year, Manhattan prosecutors indicted him for his role in hush money payoffs to women, while a jury later found him liable for sexually abusing and defaming the writer E. Jean Carroll in a civil trial.
“The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been Indicted, seemingly over the Boxes Hoax,” Trump said on his Truth Social platform in announcing news of the indictment Thursday, adding that he was asked to appear in U.S. District Court in Miami on Tuesday.
Two sources familiar with the matter confirmed the indictment, saying the charges include false statements and conspiracy to obstruct. The New York Times was first to report on the nature of the charges.
DeSantis — his closest competitor, according to polls — issued a tweet late Thursday that sympathized with Trump.
“The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” DeSantis said. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation. Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter? The DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.”
Speaking with Fox News soon after news of the indictment broke, Scott, who announced his candidacy late last month, decried the “weaponization” of federal law enforcement against Trump.
“We look at every case based on evidence in America,” Scott said. “Every person is presumed innocent, not guilty, and what we’ve seen over the last several years is the weaponization of the Department of Justice against the former president.”
Trump’s staunchest defenders expect, if not demand, such deference, even from those who want to defeat him in the race for the GOP nomination. Charlie Kirk, the right-wing activist attuned to the Trump wing of the party, asserted on Twitter that other candidates “should suspend their campaign and go to Miami as a show of support.”
“If you don’t, you are part of the problem,” Kirk added.
A Republican close with Trump world, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, wondered how “any other Republican candidate [can] effectively attack Trump right now, as Joe Biden’s DOJ is quite literally trying to put him in a jail cell?”
“How,” this source added, “do you land a single blow without looking like you’re linking arms with Biden and [special counsel] Jack Smith and cheering on what they’re doing?”
Trump’s rivals are becoming used to having to respond to his legal peril. After he was indicted in Manhattan in March, Trump also drew more sympathy than scorn from his rivals, many of whom framed the investigation as politically motivated. Last month, after a New York jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing Carroll, many GOP presidential prospects downplayed or dodged questions about the verdict. Christie, who at the time told Fox News that the case was part of an “unacceptable” pattern of conduct, was an exception.
The contours of the GOP race have changed somewhat since then. DeSantis — who offered a sharp rebuke about “porn stars” in the days before Trump’s first indictment, only to swing the other way once the indictment came — launched his campaign with a not-so-subtle pitch that Republican voters should move on from the drama of the Trump years. Christie, once a close ally, made his candidacy official this week and signaled his intention to attack Trump’s faults. Pence also entered the race this week and uncorked some of his harshest condemnations of Trump yet.
But except for Hutchinson, whose campaign has been pitched in large part to Trump-weary voters, no one jumped at the chance to pillory him. Pence, who kept quiet Thursday, refused to answer Wednesday when he was asked by NBC News in Ankeny, Iowa, whether Trump should end his campaign if a federal indictment came down.
Hutchinson didn’t hold back on that question, blasting Trump’s “willful disregard for the Constitution” and “his disrespect for the rule of law.”
“Donald Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” Hutchinson said in a statement. But “the ongoing criminal proceedings will be a major distraction. This reaffirms the need for Donald Trump to respect the office and end his campaign.”
Others promoted calls for Trump to be pardoned, either by Biden or by themselves should they win the presidency.
“It would be much easier for me to win this election if Trump weren’t in the race, but I stand for principles over politics,” businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, a long-shot candidate, said in a statement. “I commit to pardon Trump promptly on January 20, 2025 and to restore the rule of law in our country.”
“Pardon Trump now!” tweeted Perry Johnson, a Michigan businessman who was disqualified from last year’s GOP primary for governor because he didn’t collect enough valid signatures and is now running a long-shot presidential bid.
But Christie, who has lambasted Trump in his first few days of campaigning, said he wanted to wait for the indictment to be made public before he offered his thoughts on the matter.
“As I have said before, no one is above the law,” he tweeted, “no matter how much they wish they were.”