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As Trump Indictments Mount, His Rivals Finally Go on the Offensive

Once embarked down this road, there’s no turning back for Trump’s rivals, given his penchant for vengeance politics.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Steer N' Stein bar at the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

On a near-daily basis, former President Donald Trump faces either entirely new indictments or add-ons to existing ones. He’s now got a rap sheet that includes two separate sets of federal indictments and state charges in New York. He has been found liable, in a civil case, for sexual assault, and his business empire has been found guilty of a variety of malpractices.

Fulton County, Georgia, is almost certainly going to add more charges to this ballooning rap sheet this week. Add up the number of years Trump could, in theory, spend behind bars if he’s found guilty on all the charges, and it runs more than half a millennium.

Until recently, the default position among most GOP members of the House, as well as the majority of GOP presidential hopefuls, has been to disparage the Department of Justice and the local district attorneys involved in the prosecutions, to denigrate members of the grand juries, and to simply denounce the prosecutions as “swamp” politics.

That’s still mainly the case for the House GOP: witness the extraordinary proposal to create a House committee that could invite Trump to testify, bestow whistleblower status on him and thus render him immune from the federal prosecutions he’s facing; the ongoing efforts to defund special counsel Jack Smith’s office, or even the FBI; or the attempts to haul Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg before Congress to testify.

In the last week, however, there’s been a noticeable shift in the rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail, with both former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis changing their tune on Trump’s legal woes.

Pence has stated publicly that the conspiracy charges Trump now faces for his role in the fake electors scheme and the spreading of misinformation in the run-up to January 6, 2021, render him unfit to hold office again. He has also said, for the first time (and on Fox News, no less) that Trump and his advisers wanted him to actually overturn the results of the 2020 election.

DeSantis, who has spent the past several months denouncing the “weaponization” of the Justice Department, finally got around to acknowledging that “of course” Trump lost the 2020 election, and that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected. He has also gone on the offensive, telling GOP voters that Trump’s legal travails, and his insistence on continually relitigating the events of January 6 as well as the classified documents case that has led to Trump being in the docket in Florida, would put GOP election victories at risk next year.

These are hardly ringing, full-throttle denunciations of Trump and his criminality; but they are a heap more powerful than the avoidance strategy Pence and DeSantis deployed in the opening months of the presidential primary campaign.

Six months is a long time in politics, even at the best of times. When the leading candidate is facing scores of serious felony indictments, it’s an eternity.

Moreover, they come on top of a slew of other candidates’ attacks on Trump. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been fiercely attacking Trump for months now, and has recently mocked him for committing what he calls “Abbott and Costello meets the Corleones” kind of crimes. Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd has said that he could not support Trump if he were to be renominated as the GOP presidential candidate, and has opined that the twice-impeached ex-president is only running again to try to avoid prison. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said that Trump doesn’t respect the rule of law, and, after the latest indictments, should drop out of the presidential race.

That leaves a shrinking cohort of candidates — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley — who have continued to dodge and weave around the issue of whether Trump is fit for high office, and have continued to focus on alleged DOJ malfeasance rather than the substance of the charges leveled against Trump. All of these candidates, between them, pick up only around 15 percent of the votes among Republicans.

Even among this motley crew, Trump’s support is softer than it appears: Burgum refuses to mention Trump’s name on the campaign trail, though he has told news outlets that he wouldn’t do business with the man; Suarez simply won’t comment on whether he thinks the charges against Trump are disqualifying; and Haley has finally gotten around to saying that if the Espionage Act charges against Trump turn out to be true, “it’s incredibly dangerous to our national security.”

Last week, Trump said that he would refuse to sign the GOP’s required “loyalty pledge,” in which presidential candidates acknowledge that if they lose the race to be the party’s nominee, they will endorse the victor. He has also hedged on whether he’ll participate in any of the televised candidate debates.

For months now, the GOP frontrunner has assumed that he can bully and insult, that he can create carveouts from GOP requirements not afforded to other candidates; that he can flout not only the law but also political decorum with impunity; and that this would all be one-directional, with his opponents too cowed to give as good as they get. But now several of those opponents have begun taking baby steps to show that this isn’t the case.

Once they’ve embarked down this road, given Trump’s penchant for vengeance politics, there’s really no turning back. In other words, as a matter of self-survival if nothing else, having started to intimate that Trump’s criminal propensities render him unfit for office, the GOP’s presidential hopefuls will be compelled by circumstances to launch ever-more forceful critiques of Trump and of his legal difficulties in the coming weeks.

While the conventional wisdom is that Trump is a shoo-in for the nomination, I’ve never entirely bought into that. Six months is a long time in politics, even at the best of times. When the leading candidate is facing scores of serious felony indictments, it’s an eternity.

If Trump’s rival candidates finally find their footing and go onto the attack, if they finally conjure up the language that they need to hold Trump to account for his slew of criminal actions and to explain to their base just how dangerous to democratic institutions his rhetoric and actions are, it’s entirely possible that the GOP primary season will yet throw up some unexpected results.

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