On Thursday, a federal grand jury in Florida voted to indict former president Donald Trump over his mishandling of classified documents after he left the White House. For the first time in American history, federal prosecutors are bringing charges against a former president. The government alleges he kept sensitive government documents he was no longer allowed to possess and sloppily stored the files in unauthorized locations, including a bathroom and shower at his Mar-a-Lago home. He also failed to return them when asked, showed some of their contents to people without security clearance, and conspired to obstruct justice. He is expected to be arraigned Tuesday.
Trump has responded in typical fashion — by attacking the integrity of the prosecutors and wailing that he’s been treated unfairly. As a criminal defendant, he has every right to fight the charges that way if he wishes. But before other senior Republicans — members of what used to consider itself a law and order party — follow him down that path, they ought to consider the dangers they are courting by endorsing his scorched-earth attacks on the justice system.
It is one thing to differ with special counsel Jack Smith’s decision to charge Trump. Politicians criticize specific prosecutorial decisions all the time. But there is a critical difference between disagreeing with the charges and echoing Trump’s conspiracy theories that the Justice Department is corrupt and that the charges are politically motivated.
While some lonely voices in the Republican presidential primary have taken a more responsible approach — former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson called on Trump to drop out of the race and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie tweeted, “As I have said before, no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were” — most candidates are still trying to appease Trump’s base. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, for example, said Trump’s indictment in New York “was more about revenge than it is about justice,” and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida called it “un-American.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy pledged to pardon Trump if elected and said, “we cannot devolve into a banana republic where the party in power uses police force to arrest its political opponents.”
That kind of rhetoric only fuels conspiracy theories, which can have dangerous consequences. In a post-Jan. 6 world, all public officials should know that. Republican leaders shouldn’t undermine the integrity of the justice system by turning this indictment into a partisan talking point or spreading the falsehood that any outcome other than an exoneration of Trump would be unjust. Because until prosecutors lay out all the evidence they have against him — which they should do as quickly and thoroughly as possible — no one can rule out the possibility that he may, in fact, be guilty.
Former vice president Mike Pence, who recently announced his bid for the White House, tried to steer a middle ground on Friday morning, avoiding criticisms of the Justice Department while at the same time paying lip service to the conspiratorial notion that the indictment could be politically motivated. During a radio interview, he called on the DOJ to unseal the indictment to “provide the American people with all the facts and information here.” He went on to say, “The American people [will] 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.”
The most pernicious attack on the charges, though, is that they somehow reflect a two-track justice system — that Trump is being singled out by prosecutors and that to restore confidence in the impartiality of the Justice Department prosecutors should give him a pass. That’s completely backward. What would be a two-track justice system would be for prosecutors to ignore what appear to be mountains of evidence implicating the former president of criminal behavior for which other Americans have been prosecuted and jailed.
For example, the 49-page indictment, which was released later on Friday, documents a recording in which Trump was caught showing people secret documents about plans to attack another country at his Bedminster, N.J., resort in 2021, saying, “It is like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this. You attack, and…”
CNN, which obtained the recording, reported that the country in question was Iran. The tape also confirmed that Trump knew he had no power to declassify the files, contrary to what he has said in his public statements. “See as president, I could have declassified it,” he said. “Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”
Letting Trump off the hook for his reckless storage of the most sensitive of government documents and for his alleged obstruction of justice would be the exact opposite of promoting confidence in the fairness of the justice system; it would instead make a mockery of the idea of law and order that Republicans have always claimed to hold dear.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.