New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a regular guest on cable news, appeared vexed as he assessed how Republican presidential candidates were responding to Donald Trump’s second indictment, this time on federal charges of mishandling classified documents.
After casting himself as a moderate alternative in the race, Sununu had taken himself out of the running the week before, warning that a crowded field could help Trump win the nomination.
So why, he pondered on-air, why were some candidates not only failing to use the indictment against the former president to boost their standing but promising to pardon him if they take office?
“This is really serious stuff,” Sununu, a vocal critic of Trump, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Friday. “I’m actually surprised the other candidates running against him for president are not more aggressive about calling [it] out for what it is. It’s a huge problem — and mostly, it’s a huge problem for the Republican Party.”
So far, the Republican Party’s response to the allegations against Trump has been decidedly mixed. The unprecedented prosecution, a case legal experts have described as strong, has given some Republican leaders and pundits pause about Trump’s electoral prospects. Some have condemned him publicly, while others have chosen not to come to his defense.
At the same time, the indictment has failed to sway Trump’s most ardent supporters, who in response have promoted conspiratorial claims, charges of political double standards, and violent rhetoric, including cries for a “civil war.”
Trump has denied wrongdoing and called the charges “election interference at the highest level.”
The field of Republicans running for president have generally taken a cautious approach, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence condemning the indictment as politicized while urging voters to move on from Trump.
On Twitter, DeSantis said the “weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society.” But he said that as a naval officer he would have been “court-martialed in a New York minute,” if he had taken home classified material.
Pence said he was “deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward,” but stressed “no one is above the law.”
The measured approach has baffled critics like Sununu.
“You’d think that they’d be more aggressive,” he said on CNN. “You’re running against a guy with 37 indictments against him. You almost look like you’re defending him at this point.”
But on Monday, GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley took a far tougher stance.
“If this indictment is true, if what it says is actually the case, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security,” she said.
Bill Barr, who served as attorney general in the Trump administration, offered a blunt assessment of the indictment and slammed Trump’s rationale for retaining classified material.
“If even half of it is true, then he’s toast,” Barr said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This idea of presenting Trump as a victim here — a victim of a witch hunt — is ridiculous. ... He’s not a victim here. He was totally wrong that he had the right to have those documents. Those documents are among the most sensitive secrets the country has.”
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the Senate have remained quiet about the indictment, which showed photos of boxes of classified documents stacked throughout Trump’s Florida home, including the bathroom and ballroom. It’s a marked contrast to the first indictment against Trump, when Republicans were more vocal in opposition to the prosecution.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Thune have both stayed quiet about the indictment so far. The silence has highlighted the widening gap between Republicans in the Senate and House, where Trump maintains some of his most loyal defenders.
Steve Schmidt, a political strategist, denounced the Republican party’s response as “an attack on the American justice system that rivals their collective and years’ long attack on the American electoral system.”
“There is no person who has ever held a security clearance and been trusted with government secrets who is not shocked, dismayed, and alarmed after reading the indictment,” Schmidt wrote. “Why does seemingly no one — with the exception of a small number, like Senator Mitt Romney — in one of the two parties care?”
Many Trump allies went further and doubled down on their support. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a longtime Trump backer, clashed with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week” Sunday as he attacked Biden and said that “Republicans believe that the law now is a political tool.”
In his own heated interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio said Trump “can classify and he can control access to national security information however he wants.”
But Sununu called on candidates to criticize Trump’s actions directly, despite his status in the party.
“Either you want to run for president and beat the guy or you don’t,” he said on CNN.