Trump’s GOP rivals play coy

Former President Trump raises his right fist as he concludes his speech.
Former President Trump gestures after speaking at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., on Tuesday, a few hours after pleading not guilty to federal charges.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
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Criminal investigations of Donald Trump have now happened often enough that we’ve learned what to expect:

Trump denounces prosecutors as corrupt; a large segment of the Republican electorate reacts with outrage and rallies around him; Trump’s statements dominate political news coverage, blotting out his rivals; Trump’s standing among Republican voters solidifies.

We’ve watched the cycle twice this year; we’re likely to repeat it at least once, maybe twice more.

A master of knowing what he can sell to his audience, Trump has proved his ability to keep the spotlight on himself and exploit the attention. His challengers for the party’s nomination, not so much.


In the week since a federal grand jury indicted Trump on 37 counts of unauthorized retention of classified information, obstruction of justice and related charges, several of those challengers have ever so carefully begun to test lines of attack.

They’ve mostly swaddled their criticisms, however, in blanket assaults on the Justice Department and the judicial process, adopting and thereby reinforcing many of Trump’s false claims of persecution.

Their approach represents a bet that eventually, Republican voters will tire of Trump’s problems and start looking for an alternative. But it also displays their belief that the mass of Republican voters will tolerate criticism of Trump only if sweetened by attacks on his enemies. It’s the Mary Poppins strategy — “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Trump’s solid base

Here’s the math Trump’s challengers face: In January, when Republican losses in the 2022 midterm elections still dominated political conversation and Trump’s support was at a low ebb, Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, surveyed GOP voters and determined that “a majority of the GOP is ready to move on.”

Even then, however, about 3 in 10 Republican voters remained firmly attached to Trump — “ride or die,” Ayres told me at the time. Those voters said they would support Trump even if he lost the GOP nomination and ran as a third-party candidate, Ayres found.

Since then, even as so much else has happened, that hard core hasn’t shifted. A CBS News/YouGov poll that was in the field when the federal indictment of Trump was announced found that 28% of likely Republican primary voters said Trump was the only candidate they were considering. About half said they were considering Trump along with other candidates, while about 1 in 4 said they were considering others, but not Trump.

His solid hold on that 3 in 10 gives Trump a formidable base in Republican primaries, especially in a multi-candidate field. (The threat that his base would go with him if he ran a third-party campaign also gives him a huge cudgel with which to threaten GOP leaders.)


To win, even in a one-on-one contest, Trump would need to hold only about half of the remaining, persuadable voters. So far, polls show he’s doing better than that.

That math helps explain why most GOP candidates, as well as members of Congress, have shied away from directly taking Trump on.

As political scientist Seth Masket, who has been tracking the GOP race, said just before the federal indictment was announced, the behavior of the GOP hopefuls shows that most of them don’t really think they can beat Trump. Instead, they’re running to be the party’s Plan B in case the former president becomes unavailable.

Since the indictment, those calculations have split the field into three unequally sized groups.

One, made up of candidates who would charitably be described as extreme long shots, have tried to get attention by loudly proclaiming fealty to Trump. Vivek Ramaswamy, for example, flew to Miami the day of Trump’s arraignment to demand that all candidates pledge to pardon Trump.

A second, small group takes the opposite approach — sharply attacking Trump. That’s the approach of Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor whose widespread unpopularity gives him little to lose.


“We’re in a situation where there are people in my own party who are blaming DOJ,” he said on CNN the night before the arraignment. “How about, blame him? He did it. He kept — he took documents he wasn’t supposed to take.” At another point he said Trump’s actions, as alleged in the “very tight, very detailed, evidence-laden indictment,” were “awful.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been similarly direct in his criticism of Trump although lacking Christie’s single-mindedness and pungent quotability.

The third and largest group contains the candidates with plausible Plan B potential. Each has tested some gently worded critique of Trump.

The exemplar is former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. In an interview on Fox the same day as Christie’s full-on assault, Haley tried to execute a delicate two-step.

“The DOJ and FBI have lost all credibility with the American people,” she said.

At the same time, she continued, “if this indictment is true, if what it says is actually the case, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security.” Mishandling classified information “puts all of our military men and women in danger,” she said. “If that’s the case, it’s reckless, it’s frustrating.”

The other candidates in this group have largely followed that pattern, some a bit more direct, others more coy.


Former Vice President Mike Pence, for example, told the Wall Street Journal editorial board that “having read the indictment these are very serious allegations. And I can’t defend what is alleged.” At the same time, he repeated the standard GOP line that the case against Trump was politicized, a claim for which no one has offered any evidence.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took the more veiled route, saying in a speech to a North Carolina Republican convention that “as a naval officer, if I would have taken classified [documents] to my apartment, I would have been court-martialed in a New York minute.” But he also couched that as a criticism of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Is there a different standard for a Democrat secretary of State versus a former Republican president?” he added. “I think there needs to be one standard of justice in this country.”

The reality, as Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, said, is that if there is a double standard in this case, it’s one in Trump’s favor.

“This idea of presenting Trump as a victim here, a victim of a witch hunt, is ridiculous,” Barr said after the indictment came out. “He’s not a victim.” The government, Barr said, “gave him every opportunity to return those documents, they acted with restraint, they were very deferential to him and they were very patient.” Trump responded with “very egregious obstruction.”

The indictment is “very detailed,” he said. “If even half of it is true, he’s toast.”

Barr made his comments on Fox — albeit not on one of the network’s top-rated shows.

So Republican voters may be hearing alternate views about Trump’s case.

But they’re not hearing it from Trump’s top rivals, none of whom seem ready to match that sort of straight talk. Until they do, they’re unlikely to loosen his grip on the party’s nomination.

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