Even Trump’s critics don’t think indictment will bury him

The indictment unsealed Friday could hardly be more serious for Donald Trump, laying out accusations that he took documents related to U.S. and foreign countries’ defense and weapon capabilities and carelessly stored them at his estate.

But even then, it was unclear if any of it would dent Trump’s standing with his base — or damage his status as the frontrunner in the GOP primary. After watching Trump survive two impeachments and one previous indictment, few Republicans are convinced this time will be different.

“Trump’s base of support believes that the DOJ is corrupt so they will stick with Trump regardless of the specific charges,” veteran New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Mike Dennehy said shortly after the indictment was unsealed.

Between the indictment’s announcement on Thursday and the unsealing of it less than 24 hours later, Trump’s chief rival, Ron DeSantis, and other candidates had already raced to defend the former president from what the Florida governor called the “weaponization of federal law enforcement.” Then, after calling on Friday for the charges to be unsealed, Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, clammed up as soon as they were, walking away from reporters who asked about it in New Hampshire.

For Trump’s GOP opponents, the reaction illustrated, once more, a remarkably frustrating phenomenon: that in his moments of profound political weakness, the very people trying to unseat him often rush to his defense. Trump world is keenly aware of it, and by Thursday they had begun turning the screws on Republicans to ensure their fealty.

As the news of the indictment broke, Trump was in touch with allies on the Hill who quickly came to his defense. Trump’s team, as they had in previous episodes, took into account who had and had not yet put out a statement. It was noted by one Trump ally, for example, that Republican leadership — with the exception of House Majority Whip Tom Emmer — released statements almost immediately.

Trump and his political team were huddled at Bedminster at the end of the week ahead of previously scheduled trips to Georgia and North Carolina GOP meetings. They were projecting confidence that, at least initially, Trump would see a boost in support and fundraising dollars.

“The whole of the conservative movement is defending Trump against this attack from Biden, so I think it’s playing the same way all these politicized probes have played before,” said a Republican operative working in support of Trump. “For the other campaigns, their only hope is fatigue. There are many reasons for people to have fatigue by now — twice impeached, investigated — I don’t see signs of fatigue today so I think fatigue is wishful thinking.”

Of the Trump rivals racing to defend the former president, Trump pollster Jim McLaughlin told POLITICO, “They know that they have to. … They’re not going to be president if they don’t support the president.”

Even Trump’s critics were resigning themselves to the likelihood it won’t hurt Trump’s standing with his most fervent supporters, at all.

“We’re gonna continue to see this rally around the flag effect,” Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said after the indictment was unsealed.

He expected no candidate except for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to take up the details of the indictment as a cudgel against Trump.

“They’re all complicit now,” Madrid said.

Trump, according to that indictment, took documents including U.S. and foreign countries’ defense and weapon capabilities, detailed records of potential defense vulnerabilities among U.S. and allies, retaliation plans for response to a foreign attack, and information on nuclear capabilities. And for a time, he stored them in the Mar-a-Lago Club’s White and Gold ballroom, a bedroom and a bathroom, among other locations.

While Trump world was heartened at the GOP response to the indictment, there was accompanying concern over the broader impact that the revelations would have on his campaign. In particular, aides conceded that they were likely to have further difficulty raising money from the party’s big-pocketed donors, many of whom have expressed a desire to move on from the former president. The loss could be made up with better grassroots fundraising. But the campaign had hoped to maintain both spigots.

Complicating matters even more: The money Trump has been paying for his legal defense has come from his Save America PAC, with millions of dollars having been spent already — a further drain on his campaign coffers.

To some Republicans, these types of vulnerabilities present unique opportunities for Trump’s rivals — that they weren’t taking them was a strategic mistake.

“Given that Trump has this front runner status … they have to take advantage of every single opportunity that’s presented to distinguish themselves from Trump and his unfitness for office,” said Kevin Madden, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “Passing on that … has to be considered a strategic blunder.”

“I worked on three presidential campaigns,” he added. “And I think about just how much of an opportunity it would be for us if one of our leading competitors got indicted. There’s no scenario in which I walk in and say, ‘Guys, we have to be careful with this.’”

But that is exactly what Trump’s rivals are doing — hoping the indictment hurts Trump but refraining from directly crossing him. Case in point was the reaction of Vivek Ramaswamy, the 37-year-old tech executive who rushed to issue a statement late Thursday, promising “to pardon Trump promptly on January 20, 2025 and to restore the rule of law in our country.”

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Not long after, a GOP strategist aligned with Ramaswamy told POLITICO that the news “hurts anyone not named Trump in the short-term.”

However, the strategist said, “At some point though, you have to think that Trump has to go down by death-by-1,000-cuts? Will that open a door for an underdog?”

At a campaign stop in Derry, N.H., on Friday hours before the charges became public, Pence stopped short of directly criticizing Trump over the indictment — a reflection of how narrow a pocket his rivals have to navigate as they try to outmaneuver him and fight for his scraps among the primary electorate.

“No one is above the law,” Pence said in his speech at the Derry winery. But he also said Trump was entitled to the “presumption of innocence” — particularly with the charges stemming from a “Justice Department run by the current president of the United States and a political rival.”

Pence, who wasn’t charged in his own case after a small trove of classified documents turned up at his suburban Indianapolis home, says he “took full responsibility” for the matter that the Justice Department “concluded … was an innocent mistake.”

But Pence, who had spent the morning urging voters to wait until the charges were unsealed to pass judgment on the former president, had nothing to say once they were, ignoring reporters’ questions as he entered and exited a Londonderry diner with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

Even Sununu, a fierce Trump critic, was uncharacteristically taciturn when asked about the report and whether the former president should end his third White House bid over it.

“What I think doesn’t matter,” Sununu said. “He’s going to stay in the race.”

Meanwhile, Christie called the indictment “devastating” for Trump and further slammed the former president’s “irresponsible” acts.

“Is this the type of conduct we want from someone who wants to be president of the United States?” he said on CNN Friday evening.

No matter the outcome of the primary, the indictment may be deeply problematic for Trump in a general election. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll last month found 63 percent of Americans consider “taking highly classified documents from the White House and obstructing efforts to retrieve them” to be a serious crime. But in a Republican primary, it may be far less of an obstacle for Trump. Just 42 percent of Republicans say it’s a serious crime.

“It doesn’t sound good, but it depends on how this all unfolds in court,” said Dave Carney, a national Republican strategist based in New Hampshire.

What will resonate, he said, is the Republican electorate’s belief that Trump is the victim of a “double standard, this politicization of attacks on the right.”

A Republican strategist supportive of DeSantis, granted anonymity to speak freely, said it’s “too early” to know the fallout from the indictment for sure.

However, he said, “I suspect this clinches the nomination for him and at the least holds his polling advantage steady for the next month and stunts DeSantis’ growth.”

( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

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