Thursday’s announcement of Donald Trump’s indictment has provided an opening for Republicans to spin the charges and craft the narrative about what their lasting impact will be.
While Republican support for former President Donald Trump swelled in the wake of the announcement Thursday by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office that Trump had been indicted on more than 30 counts by a grand jury, the reaction was a little more complicated for the field of GOP presidential primary challengers.
Faced with an easy line of attack centered on criminal charges, hush money and a porn star, or the potential wrath of Trump’s army of ardent MAGA supporters, most bowed out of both – choosing instead to focus on the indictment’s politicization of the country’s legal system.
“The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head,” DeSantis said on Twitter, adding that the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, is “stretching the law to target a political opponent.”
“It is un-American,” he said. “Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this Soros-backed Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda.”
The offer from DeSantis is clever, since Trump would be loath to accept help from his biggest Republican primary opponent and someone the former president has spent so much political capital trying to attack and undermine over the last six months.
Trump’s lawyers have indicated that Trump plans to surrender.
But the response was also a careful one by DeSantis, who has been sinking in head-to-head primary polls with Trump and who came under fire from his supporters last week when he commented about the ongoing investigation, saying, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who earlier this month broke his years-long silence on Trump’s involvement with the riot in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and who has since been even more vocal in his criticism of Trump, similarly square-danced around Thursday’s announcement.
Instead of focusing on Trump, Pence directed his response to what the grand jury’s indictment and the investigation writ large will mean for the already hyper-partisan political landscape, saying that it will provide a “disservice to this country.”
“I think the unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” Pence told CNN. “I think the American people will look at this and see it as one more example of the criminalization of politics in this country.”
Notably, Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas and likely 2024 GOP hopeful , didn’t defend Trump at all.
“It is a dark day for America when a former President is indicted on criminal charges,” he said in a statement. “While the grand jury found credible facts to support the charges, it is important that the presumption of innocence follows Mr. Trump.”
“It is essential that the decision on America’s next president be made at the ballot box and not in the court system,” he added. “Donald Trump should not be the next president, but that should be decided by voters.”
While Thursday’s indictment announcement is set to rally Trump’s most ardent supporters at a time when the former president has been pulling away from DeSantis and the rest of the GOP primary field, it also comes at a time when Trump is sinking in general election polls – leaving the door open as to how Republican Party leaders spin the indictment and what its lasting impact will be. Those questions are set to unfold over the next six months to a year.
What’s obvious now, however, is that the most full-throated defenses of the former president are coming from Republican members of Congress.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican who during the 2016 campaign called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot,” was in tears Thursday evening on Fox News, begging supporters to donate to Trump’s campaign so that “he can fight this bull—t.”
“To the conservatives out there, make sure you vote. If you’ve got friends, make sure they vote,” he said. “You need to help this man, Donald J. Trump. They are trying to drain him dry.”
“This is going to destroy America,” Graham said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and former GOP presidential primary rival of Trump, said that the “Democrat Party’s hatred for Donald Trump knows no bounds.”
“The ‘substance’ of this political persecution is utter garbage,” he said. “This is completely unprecedented and is a catastrophic escalation in the weaponization of the justice system.”
Senate newcomer J.D. Vance of Ohio, whose campaign victory was intimately tied to Trump’s endorsement of him and who’s already returned the endorsement favor by pledging his allegiance to Trump in the 2024 election, called the indictment a “blatant election interference and a direct assault on the tens of millions of Americans who support him.”
On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California slammed Bragg, saying on Twitter that he “has irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our Presidential election” and “weaponized our sacred system of justice against President Donald Trump.”
McCarthy referenced the possibility that House committees may soon compel Bragg to testify, just a week after he declined an invitation from Republicans on the House Oversight Committee to testify about his investigation into the hush money payments.
“The American people will not tolerate this injustice, and the House of Representatives will hold Alvin Bragg and his unprecedented abuse of power to account,” McCarthy said.
Meanwhile the response from the MAGA wing of the Republican Party was just as bombastic in style as their criticisms of the multiple ongoing investigations of Trump have been for months now.
Rep. Marjory Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican and evangelist of the former president, said that Trump was “the only one standing in the way of these modern day tyrants, just like our founding fathers did, to protect each of us from evil.”
She also announced that she’s planning to be in New York City on Tuesday, the date when Trump will likely be arraigned and the charges in the indictment will be unsealed, and urged his supporters to join her.
“We MUST protest the unconstitutional WITCH HUNT!” she tweeted.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz accused Biden of encouraging politically motivated investigations into Trump by amping up his public criticism of Trump’s most ardent supporters.
“He functionally gaslit this indictment by saying that extreme MAGA Republicans were dangerous,” Gaetz told Fox News. “By a margin of about two to one, the American people see this is not based in the law and the facts, but raw, ugly politics.”