CNN-The federal indictment of former President Donald Trump – his second time being charged in less than three months – has swept the 2024 presidential election into a new period of uncertainty, and made it even more likely that Trump will campaign while also facing trial.
For his rivals, though, the campaign has been frozen in place, with Trump again seizing the spotlight and relegating them to supporting roles.
Reactions from the campaigns came ahead of the unsealing of the indictment on Friday afternoon, allowing some to play for time and cast themselves as impartial observers. Others, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, immediately moved to condemn prosecutors and echo Trump’s claims to being a victim of a Department of Justice “weaponized” by President Joe Biden and allied Democrats.
The tangle of early reaction underscores the unsure nature of the primary, with more than seven months of campaigning to go before the first votes are cast in Iowa’s caucuses, and three candidates formally entering the race this week alone. Unlike in the aftermath of a New York City district attorney’s indictment of Trump in connection with a hush money case earlier this year, the former president’s primary opponents are, on balance, staking out more cautious terrain this time, with all but DeSantis suggesting they will withhold judgment until more details about the case are revealed by the government.
The Florida governor has ramped up his attacks on Trump over the last couple weeks, but his criticism has largely appealed to Republican voters’ concerns about electability and an argument that DeSantis is a better bet to deliver on his promises. So when word of the indictment broke, DeSantis sprinted to Trump’s corner – along with the loyalists he is ultimately hoping will break for him.
“The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” DeSantis tweeted late Thursday night. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation.”
DeSantis’ comments were a near copy-paste version of his reaction to Trump’s first indictment, when the governor – not yet a candidate – accused prosecutors of systematized partisan bias.
“The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head,” DeSantis said in March. “It is un-American.”
That line of response, and attack, was near uniform across the Republican Party after charges were announced by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, an elected Democrat and champion of progressive policies that already irked most conservatives
The new case against Trump is a stickier political wicket. To start, the grand jury that voted to indict Trump was not based in New York City, where Trump is deeply unpopular, but in South Florida, where he now lives and enjoys a good deal of support.
And though the bulk of the evidence against Trump remains under seal, CNN on Friday first reported on a 2021 meeting in which Trump is on tape, according to a transcript, saying he had retained “secret” military information that he had not declassified – directly refuting his prior claims to having done just that before leaving office.
“All sorts of stuff – pages long, look,” Trump says to others in the room. “Wait a minute, let’s see here. I just found, isn’t that amazing? This totally wins my case, you know. Except it is like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this.”
Among the 2024 field, DeSantis and longshot primary candidate Vivek Ramaswamy emerged overnight as Trump’s most ardent defenders. Ramaswamy released a statement and a video, calling the indictment “an affront to every citizen” before comparing the US to “a banana republic where the party in power uses police force to arrest its political opponents.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s deputy in office and two-time running mate, has sought to straddle two worlds – at once urging against judgment before prosecutors unseal their case against Trump and, in the same radio interview on Friday morning with conservative host Hugh Hewitt, promising a purge of federal law enforcement officials.
“We’re going to clean house all across the top floors, whether it’s the Justice Department or whether it’s the FBI. I just think we need a whole new team,” Pence said. “I think there’s been literally a collapse of confidence.”
But in the same conversation, Pence also called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to unseal the indictment “before the sun sets today” in order to provide more transparency into the charges.
“The American people should be able to judge for themselves whether this is just the latest incident of weaponization and politicization at the Justice Department or it’s something different,” Pence said.
Another one-time close Trump ally, former US ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, tried a similar tack. After keeping mum Thursday night and for most of the morning, she accused the government of abusing its powers.
“The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards, and vendetta politics,” Haley wrote. “It’s time to move beyond the endless drama and distractions.”
That second line, though, could be read two ways. What precisely Haley wants to “move beyond” is unclear: Trump and the accompanying circus or the “vendetta politics” that, she claims, is a driving force behind this latest firestorm.
In a Fox News interview on Thursday night, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott sought to strike a similar balance. He demurred when asked whether he had spoken to Trump, then added, somewhat ambiguously, that he would “continue to pray for our nation and continue to pray that justice prevails.”
What he meant by “justice,” in this context, was difficult to pin down, but it could allow him space to maneuver when the details of the indictment became public. Like Pence, though, he also used the occasion to attack federal law enforcement.
“What we have seen over the past few years is the weaponization of the Department of Justice against the former president,” Scott said, later adding that, if elected president, he “would purge all of the injustices and impurities in our system.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another onetime ally and close adviser to Trump who has emerged as his chief critic in the 2024 race, reacted to the indictment first by disparaging Trump’s own response, delivered on the former president’s social media platform, before urging patience.
“As I have said before, no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were,” Christie said in a statement. “We will have more to say when the facts are revealed.”
His super PAC was also aggressive. Ahead of a new ad launch, its first of the 2024 primary, a senior adviser to the group said the new indictment furthered Christie’s political case against Trump.
“The latest round of indictments serve as another reminder that the Republican Party needs a new direction,” said Colin Reed of Christie’s Tell It Like It Is PAC. “To turn the page on the Biden presidency, the GOP needs a qualified leader.”
Though with less bombast, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been making a similar strategic argument since entering the race – in his case, that Trump should stand down, abandon his campaign, and take on his legal issues away in a different forum.
“While Donald Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence, the ongoing criminal proceedings will be a major distraction,” Hutchinson said. “This reaffirms the need for Donald Trump to respect the office and end his campaign.”