The unprecedented indictment of former President Trump creates a political puzzle and problem for Republican leaders in Washington who are divided over how to respond to it and have differing views about what it means for the future of their party.
Some Republicans, such as Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), are lambasting the indictment as an “abuse of power” and a “weaponization” of the justice system, predicting it will fuel public support for Trump in 2024.
“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 declared last week.
But other prominent Republicans, who want the party to move past Trump, such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Senate GOP Whip John Thune (S.D.), are staying quiet about the news bombshell.
“It seems like he’s gotten the base strongly behind him. Does that change over time? We’ll see, especially since there’s more legal trouble going on,” said one Senate Republican aide. “It’s probably prudent for Republicans to take a deep breath and see what he’s actually charged with.
“It’s a puzzle right now and no one really knows how this all plays out, politically and legally,” the aide added.
The aide warned that Republicans racing to defend Trump have “really put themselves out there on a limb.”
Related coverage on the Trump indictment from The Hill:
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team, said last month he would prefer to see House Republicans working on the issues that helped them win the majority instead of battling with Bragg.
He offered a measured statement on the indictment.
“It looks to me like this is an opportunity for this DA to make headlines and gain publicity,” he said Friday.
Some of Trump’s critics within the party think that even if the latest development helps him consolidate support in the party, it may further weaken his viability in a general-election matchup against President Biden and hurt the GOP brand.
“I really, truly think that there is fatigue over the circus that comes with Donald Trump. I think a lot of people want to support him and be supportive of him and agree with him on the policies but are fatigued by the circus,” said Matt Dole, a Republican consultant based in Ohio, a Senate battleground in 2024.
Dole said the silence of prominent Republicans such as McConnell and Thune reflects that “fatigue.”
“I think you’re seeing people just tired of the circus,” he said, noting GOP leaders are bracing for the possibility of additional indictments from Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith and Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.
“There’s no doubt that you could make the case that this is a politically motivated indictment,” he said of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case against Trump. “Republicans can think it’s a political indictment and also be sick of the circus.
“If you think that other indictments are coming and you’re fatigued, the notion of coming out and saying, ‘This is a political indictment,’ well, then the next one you’re going to have to say something,” he added. “Staying quiet then I think is just an acknowledgement that there’s more to come and we’re going to let him sort it out in the court.”
One Republican strategist said Trump already struggled with swing suburban voters because of his pugnacious style and penchant for controversy.
“An indictment like this with two more potentially coming down in the future really hurts his chances to win back these suburban voters,” the strategist said.
“For any Republican candidate to succeed in a presidential race, they need to bring these right-of-center voters back into the fold and this latest development really hurts his chances to be the best candidate do that,” the strategist said.
Other Republicans think the indictment will pave the way for Trump to win the nomination next year.
“I think this is an enormous political gift to Donald Trump,” Cruz said on his podcast, “Verdict.”
“If I were a Democrat, I might well report Alvin Bragg to the Federal Election Commission for making the single greatest in-kind contribution to a presidential campaign in history,” he added. “This will help Trump.”
Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, predicted the indictment will strengthen Trump’s support from the Republican base.
“I think it solidifies in a general election that portion of the Republican electorate that for a long time has been committed to Donald Trump. I think they’ll stick to him like a stamp sticks to a love letter,” he said.
And he projected “there may be initial sympathy” for Trump from independent and swing voters.
“That may be based on the complexity of the charges, which of course we haven’t seen yet,” he added, noting that Democrats did well in the 1998 midterm election after House Republicans impeached former President Clinton for having an affair with a White House intern.
Some Republican strategists think Bragg’s case could stretch out for months — well into the 2024 election cycle.
“If it’s being litigated, it’s going to be in appeals court, they’re going to be appealing different aspects of the case,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide. “It’s helping Trump raise money now, no doubt.
“It’s going to help Trump raise a lot of money for his reelection,” he added.
Trump’s campaign and allied groups, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sent out fundraising appeals citing the indictment immediately after news of it broke Thursday. Darling said McConnell’s early silence on Trump’s indictment wasn’t surprising.
“McConnell doesn’t like Trump. He’s not going to make any statement that would be beneficial to Trump’s potential reelection,” he said.
Thune, who has stood in as the Senate Republican leader in recent weeks while McConnell recuperates from a concussion, indicated that Republicans are getting tired of having to regularly answer questions about Trump’s legal problems instead of talking about President Biden’s record or problems afflicting the economy, such as inflation.
Asked if it’s frustrating to keep on getting sucked into Trump’s legal dramas, Thune replied: “What do you think?”
At the same time, Thune acknowledged that “a lot of our members, colleagues” are wondering why the Manhattan district attorney is prioritizing charges against Trump that other prosecutors have declined to pursue “when there are so many serious crime issues in New York.”
Bragg has come under fire from Republican lawmakers for circulating a memo to prosecutors in January of last year advising them to only seek prison sentences for the most serious crimes.
His record of downgrading 52 percent of the felony cases in his jurisdiction down to misdemeanors and winning convictions in just more than 50 percent of felony cases has also drawn criticism.
“How can President Trump avoid prosecution in New York?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a tweet Thursday.
“On the way to the DA’s office on Tuesday, Trump should smash some windows, rob a few shops and punch a cop. He would be released IMMEDIATELY!” he wrote in a follow-up tweet.
Even Republicans who aren’t viewed as staunch Trump allies see it as good politics to rally to his defense given Bragg’s record in New York and the support from Color of Change PAC, a group that accepted money from financier George Soros.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Trump’s leading rival for the presidential nomination, said Thursday that Florida would not assist with any extradition request Bragg may make to bring Trump to stand trial in New York. No such request was likely to come given Trump’s willingness to go to New York, but the statement showed DeSantis wanted to be seen as standing up to Bragg.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.), the third-ranking member of Senate GOP leadership team, accused Bragg of acting on political motives.
“If it was anyone other than President Trump, a case like this would never be brought,” he said. “Instead of ordering political hit jobs, New York prosecutors should focus on getting violent criminals off the streets.”