Republican Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who has pledged to run a neutral presidential nominating process, reacted within minutes to the news of a New York grand jury’s indictment of her party’s leading candidate, Donald Trump, calling the move a “blatant abuse of power” that “endangers us all.”
The former president’s likely rivals in 2024 were not far behind. An aide to former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley - who had previously called the investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) a political prosecution - pointed to their previous statements criticizing the case.
After initially declining to address the news at a book tour event in Smyrna, Ga., Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) put out a statement calling the indictment “un-American,” condemning the “weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda” and pledging not to assist any extradition request to his state that results.
Former vice president Mike Pence - who broke with Trump over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and is eying a 2024 presidential run - also criticized the charges.
“I think the unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” Pence said Thursday night in an interview on CNN. “This will only further serve to divide our country.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, a tech entrepreneur also running against Trump, said: “This is wrong, This is dangerous.”
The decision to rally around the former president and current polling leader for the GOP nomination reflects clear polling patterns that have been internalized by Republican election consultants. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted this week found that 93 percent of Republicans, and 62 percent of all Americans, believe the case by Bragg is motivated mainly by politics, not law. Only 1 in 4 Republicans think charges against Trump should disqualify him from running in 2024, compared with 57 percent of all Americans.
Those numbers have set up Trump for short-term gains in his quest for the nomination, some Republican lawmakers and strategists say.
“At the end of the day, he’s confident that most people are going to consider this a politically motivated endeavor,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump backer, said Thursday after talking to him. “He thinks most people will see it as a weaponization of the law. . . . From a political point of view, it’s going to solidify Trump’s standing in the Republican Party.”
Trump became the first former U.S. president to face indictment Thursday when a state grand jury voted for a sealed indictment following a weeks-long investigation into hush money paid to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. A criminal indictment or conviction does not disqualify Trump from running for or winning the presidency.
Trump - who has denied all wrongdoing - used the indictment to fundraise for his presidential campaign, sending an email asking for money “to defend our movement from the never-ending witch hunts.” He claimed donations would have a “1,500% impact,” without offering details on what that meant.
Trump allies said his daily fundraising haul has increased significantly since he posted on Truth Social this month that he expected to be arrested, taking in more than $2 million. The biggest fundraising day of his post-presidency was the day after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago last year for classified documents.
“We are living through the darkest chapter of American history,” the fundraising appeal Thursday night read.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, a former U.S. attorney also considering a potential campaign for president, came the closest to lending approval to the legal process in New York, noting in a statement that “the grand jury found credible facts to support the charges.”
“We need to wait on the facts and for our American system of justice to work like it does for thousands of Americans every day,” he said, adding that he hopes voters still get to decide whether Trump should be the next president.
Such voices are likely to remain the minority inside the party, as Republican leaders moved quickly to rally around Trump. “Alvin Bragg has irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our Presidential election,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement.
The White House declined to comment Thursday after the grand jury voted to indict Trump. In its own statement, the Democratic National Committee sought to emphasize policy contrasts with the Republican Party.
“No matter what happens in Trump’s upcoming legal proceedings, it’s obvious the Republican Party remains firmly in the hold of Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans,” Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the DNC, said in a statement, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The two responses reflect a deliberate strategy from the White House and the Democratic Party to largely stay silent in response to Trump’s legal troubles.
In a brief phone call, Ramaswamy explained why 2024 Republican hopefuls such as himself have not seized on Trump’s indictment to attack the former president.
“This is about principles over politics,” Ramaswamy said. “If the tables were turned, I would say the same thing in the other direction. No Republican should do this to a Democrat. No Democrat should do this to a Republican.”
The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Tyler Pager and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.