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For Republican rivals, an unhappy task: defend the man dominating them in the polls

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida addresses the North Carolina state GOP convention in Greensboro on June 9.KATE MEDLEY/NYT

In the topsy-turvy world of 2024 Republican politics, rivals of Donald Trump had been bracing for weeks for his second indictment with more dread than any sense of opportunity.

After years of successive scandals, the immediate instincts of so many Republican voters are thoroughly ingrained. They snap to Trump’s defense, no matter how outrageous the charges are or who is making them — Democrats, the news media, local prosecutors or, now, federal ones. Donations surged after Trump’s first indictment in New York. And he consolidated support in the polls.

Even prominent Republicans eager for the party to cast aside Trump in 2024 were concerned ahead of the indictment. They have long been exasperated by the immunity of Trump’s base to almost any attack or argument, swarming to neutralize any perceived political threat almost by habit.


“There’s a lot of folks who just don’t buy any of it,” Governor Chris Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, who announced this week that he would not run for president in 2024, said in a recent interview. “Democrats are like the boy who cried wolf. ‘Oh, no, no. But this is real.’”

He added, “It’s created a situation where a lot of Republican voters intuitively dismiss any criticism at the former president.”

On Thursday evening, Trump’s rivals immediately faced the uncomfortable choice of joining the chorus of conservatives who quickly rallied behind Trump, or looking like they weren’t on Team GOP at a moment of heightened tribal politics. Those who did speak came mostly to the defense of the candidate dominating them in the polls.

Governor Ron DeSantis, Republican of Florida, said “the weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” though he did not explicitly defend Trump.

Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, also decried “the weaponization of the Department of Justice” in an interview on Fox News that had been scheduled before the indictment. “You don’t have to be a Republican to see injustice,” he said.


And Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur running a hard-line but long-shot candidacy, went further, pledging, “I commit to pardon Trump promptly on Jan. 20, 2025.”

The exception was former governor Asa Hutchinson, Republican of Arkansas, who is clinging to the margins of the race as a bastion of old-guard Republicanism. He called for Trump to end his campaign.

Most Republicans, conservative commentators and Trump allies ratcheted up pressure immediately to close ranks behind a former president facing charges that emanated from a special counsel appointed by a Justice Department that reports to President Biden. “PEAK WITCH HUNT,” blared the banner headline on Breitbart. A pro-Trump super PAC circulated supportive statements from more than 50 elected officials and conservative figures within four hours of Trump’s announcing his own indictment.

“This will only cause a firestorm of support,” Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist who hosts the streaming “War Room” program that is popular with the party’s right-wing base, wrote in a text message. “Rivals would be wise to ‘heave-to.’”

Trump raised $4 million in the first 24 hours after his last indictment. His campaign sent out its first e-mailed plea for cash less than 30 minutes after publicizing this one.

There are longer-term questions about the political fallout from the indictment, which adds yet another piece of baggage for a now twice-impeached and twice-indicted former president. Then there is the issue of actual legal jeopardy: The specific charges include willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and a conspiracy to obstruct justice.


Yet on Fox News, the cable channel that serves as the information circulatory system for millions of Republican primary voters, the coverage Thursday was almost universally aghast at the seven federal counts Trump is facing, even if the details have not been made public yet. Host Mark Levin called “June 8th, the day of insurrection, not Jan. 6th.” Breaking-news banners and repeated segments trumpeted Democratic apostasies and scandals, from Hillary Clinton to Biden, that did not result in prosecution.

Pete Hegseth, a Fox News host, goaded Trump’s 2024 rivals to travel in solidarity to Florida, where Trump said he had been summoned to a federal courthouse next week: “Every single Republican nominee should be down in Miami on Tuesday night — standing behind — standing for justice in the country, saying ‘I may be running for president’ — Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, whoever, Ron DeSantis — ‘but this is injustice.’”

Hegseth added, “I don’t think they have a chance now considering what Trump is up against.”

Representative Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina, who at times has been an outspoken critic of Trump, sounded a similar note on the same network. “I do believe tonight that Joe Biden just secured Donald Trump’s nomination for Republicans in 2024,” Mace said.

The highest-ranking elected Republican, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, was among those who cast unifying behind Trump as beyond parochial political considerations.


“I, and every American who believes in the rule of law,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter, “stand with President Trump.”