Republicans sharpen attacks as Trump’s legal jeopardy grows

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wearing a dark suit with a red tie
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to a crowd in Manchester, N.H., announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
(Charles Krupa / Associated Press)

The race for the Republican presidential nomination hit an inflection point this week, with the final major hopefuls announcing their decisions and stepping up attacks on the newly indicted front-runner, former President Trump.

The pack chasing Trump has roughly six months of debates, town halls and fundraising pitches ahead before voters start to winnow the field. That process will be made more urgent by memories of 2016, when multiple rivals split the anti-Trump vote, allowing him to win long before he had consolidated majority support.

Trump has kept a big lead in polls, and “a lot of folks have been quick to declare this race as essentially over,” said University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket. The candidates, however, are showing by their behavior that “they see an opening,” he said.


Why do so many candidates see Trump as vulnerable? His indictment on Thursday on multiple charges related to his handling of classified documents he had stashed at his Mar-a-Lago residence provides one answer.

Trump has used previous legal woes as a way to cement the loyalties of Republican voters, and he followed that pattern this week.

“HOW CAN DOJ CHARGE ME WHO DID NOTHING WRONG, WHEN NO OTHER PRESIDENT’S WERE CHARGED, WHEN JOE BIDEN WON’T BE CHARGED FOR ANYTHING,” he wrote in a post on his social media platform, Truth Social, after his lawyers met with prosecutors early in the week. “THE GREATEST WITCH HUNT OF ALL TIME!”

Intensifying the attacks

In the short run, that may work. At least for a while, the news of the charges will blot out any attention that Trump’s challengers might receive. Longer-term, no one knows whether a significant number of Republican voters will view the charges as disqualifying or whether they will brush them aside as they have with previous accusations.

Even before the indictment, one candidate, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, had called for Trump to quit the race. Trump “is the target of an ongoing criminal investigation and he should step aside,” Hutchinson wrote on Twitter.

Hutchinson’s support is barely a blip, however.

In California, which will send the largest delegation to next year’s Republican nominating convention, three-quarters of likely Republican primary voters had a favorable view of Trump, according to our most recent Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, which was taken in late May. The poll found 86% believed the investigations of the former president were more about politics and political revenge than about justice and the law. Seventy-one percent said it was more important to nominate the candidate who best represents their opinions than one with the best chance of beating President Biden.

And a recent Monmouth University poll found that almost two-thirds of Republicans said Trump was definitely (45%) or probably (18%) the party’s strongest candidate against Biden.

“If your message to voters who support Trump is he cannot win, you are going to hit a brick wall,” wrote Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Finding a message that works against Trump has eluded his Republican opponents since 2015, Masket noted. “Nothing has worked.”


But after months in which the candidates mostly appeared to tiptoe around Trump, the attacks have sharpened, most notably with two new entrants — former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The two share the experience of being nearly killed by Trump’s recklessness — Pence on Jan. 6, 2021, by the Trump-inspired mob that howled for his hanging; Christie by COVID-19, which he contracted in 2020 after extensive prep sessions for the first debate between Trump and Biden. Trump, already ill, hid his symptoms during debate prep; Christie spent seven days in intensive care before recovering.

For Pence — the first vice president to challenge the president he served since John Nance Garner sought to deny Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term in 1940 — Wednesday’s announcement rally in Iowa marked a shift in course.

“It might be fair to ask why I’m challenging my former running mate,” he told the crowd. On Jan. 6, “President Trump ... demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice,” he said. “Anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States. And anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again.”

Whether Pence truly means “never” is unclear — he later suggested he might support Trump if he became the nominee. Christie, by contrast, is more comfortable with the concept of campaigning as payback and has built almost his entire pitch around the premise that if he gets on the debate stage with Trump — no sure thing given the qualifying rules — he can deliver a knockout blow.

Trump is a “lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog” who “never admits a fault, and who always finds someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong, but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right,” he said at his announcement in New Hampshire. He accused Trump and his family of “grift” and described Trump’s term in office as a failure.

Christie is widely unpopular with voters in both parties, and they may scoff at his shift from Trump apologist to scourge. But even if his campaign goes nowhere, his words could open the way for others.


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, who has consistently taken second place in polls, has tried to woo Trump’s hardcore supporters by running to his right on issues like COVID (he’s criticized Trump for not firing Anthony Fauci) and crime (he’s said he would repeal the criminal justice reform law that Trump signed in 2018, calling it “a jailbreak bill [that] ... has allowed dangerous people out of prison”).

But he’s avoided direct attacks while seeding questions about whether the former president can win.

“There’s a lot of voters who just aren’t going to vote for him, who don’t like Biden, and who realize that country’s going in the wrong direction, but they’re not going to go there,” he said during a recent interview with Fox’s Brian Kilmeade.

Those candidates and the others, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who also entered the race this week, have a short time to see whether their arguments can make a dent, says New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. He announced that he would not run and said he would try to use his position as governor of the state with the GOP’s first primary to ensure the party does not repeat the experience of 2016.

Trump is an “indisputable” loser in a rematch with Biden, Sununu wrote. The rest of the field needs to recognize the need to not divide the opposition as they did then.

“Every candidate needs to understand the responsibility of getting out and getting out quickly if it’s not working,” he said on CNN. “Christmas at the latest.”

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