In a normal political party, presidential primary candidates might take multiple federal indictments against one of their rivals as an opportunity to attack or at least mildly criticize that rival. Not in today’s Republican Party, and not when the person under indictment is Donald Trump. Thanks to Trump’s rabid followers and their importance to the party as a whole, it’s a loyalty test. Most of the people directly trying to defeat Trump can’t even bring themselves to invoke the idea that no one—no matter how powerful—should be above the law, let alone to suggest that Trump might possibly have broken the law.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is running a distant second behind Trump. He’s trying to compete directly with Trump for votes rather than peeling off the never-Trumpers. Hostility has been simmering between the two men on the campaign trail. But at the news of the seven federal indictments against Trump, DeSantis fell right in line.
“The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society. We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation. Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter?” DeSantis tweeted. “The DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.”
Going in order: Allowing a powerful person to get away with crimes because they are powerful represents a mortal threat to a free society.
We have for years witnessed Republicans trying to get Democrats charged with crimes purely on a partisan basis and failing because investigations don’t turn up evidence of crimes. Hillary Clinton was repeatedly investigated, with the treatment of those investigations significantly damaging her presidential prospects. But for DeSantis, there’s no room to imagine that perhaps the difference between investigated and not charged and investigated and charged is the evidence of crimes turned up by those investigations. And Hunter Biden remains under active investigation and may yet be indicted. (Try to imagine a President Donald Trump allowing one of his adult children to be investigated, let alone indicted, by what he would see as his Justice Department.)
The final line of DeSantis’ tweet is a pledge to ensure that no Republican ever faces accountability for crimes, full stop. And his “weaponization” line is straight out of the official Republican playbook, as shown again and again and again in statements on the indictments from congressional Republicans.
Then there’s Mike Pence, whose life was literally threatened by a mob of Trump supporters who Trump refused to call off. Shortly before news of the indictments broke, he answered a question about that possibility.
"I think it would send a terrible message to the wider world," Pence said. "But again, let me be very clear: No one's above the law. And if the Department of Justice chooses to move forward with an indictment, I would hope that it would meet the very high threshold for the unprecedented action of a federal indictment against the former president."
If no one is above the law, then what is the “terrible message” being sent “to the wider world” by indicting Trump? But when news of the indictments did come, Pence went to ground. A scheduled appearance on Fox News to be interviewed by Sean Hannity didn’t happen. As of Friday morning, he hadn’t issued a statement. So courageous.
It’s an interesting question, in fact, who has less courage here: DeSantis with his pivot to sucking up to the Trump base, or Pence with his silence.
Then there’s the rest of the pack. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador narrowly trailing Pence, hadn’t issued a statement as of Friday morning. Vivek Ramaswamy, the Some Dude in fourth place, showed off his loyalty.
“It would be much easier for me to win this election if Trump weren’t in the race, but I stand for principles over politics,” Ramaswamy said. “I commit to pardon Trump promptly on January 20, 2025, and to restore the rule of law in our country.” With a statement like that, it’s no wonder Ramaswamy is drawing attention and polling ahead of a senator and a governor and less than two points behind a former vice president. You really have to admire the commitment to Trumpian rhetoric in his claim that pardoning Trump and restoring the rule of law are things he can simultaneously do in the name of principle, not politics.
South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the senator trailing Ramaswamy, went on Fox News Thursday and tried to do a balancing act wherein he pretended to care about the rule of law while spewing the official “weaponization” line.
“We look at every case based on evidence in America,” Scott said. “Every person is presumed innocent, not guilty, and what we’ve seen over the last several years is the weaponization of the Department of Justice against the former president.” Every person is presumed innocent, but it’s the job of prosecutors to break through that presumption and prove guilt. There’s a clause that comes after “presumed innocent”—“until proven guilty”—and it’s kind of the foundation of the criminal justice system. Scott pledged to “purge all of the injustices and impurities in our system,” or, in translation, ensure that prominent Republicans are not charged with crimes.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, tweeted, “We don’t get our news from Trump’s Truth Social account. Let’s see what the facts are when any possible indictment is released. As I have said before, no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were. We will have more to say when the facts are revealed.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, one of the real “He’s still running?” cases of the current primary, called on Trump to drop out of the race.
“While Donald Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence, the ongoing criminal proceedings will be a major distraction,” Hutchinson said. “This reaffirms the need for Donald Trump to respect the office and end his campaign.” Trump is, of course, already fundraising off that “major distraction,” so whatever else he feels about it, he sees it as a net plus for his campaign. But how telling is it that the only guy brave enough to outright call on Trump to drop out is polling at 0.7%?
Christie and Hutchinson are in the race as Trump critics. Everyone else is either too scared of the Republican base or too sincerely loyal to Trump to be able to admit that maybe he should be charged with crimes because maybe he committed those crimes. Trump is being indicted in federal court, and that serves as a dual indictment of how the Republican base understands the rule of law and the courage and/or principles of his rivals.
This week on "The Downballot," we're joined by guest host Joe Sudbay and law professor Quinn Yeargain for a deep dive into major political developments in three states. First up is Arizona, where a key GOP retirement on the Board of Supervisors in jumbo Maricopa County gives Democrats an excellent chance to win their first majority since the 1960s. Then it's on to Arkansas, where citizens are working to overturn a Republican bill that purports to ban "critical race theory" in public schools by qualifying a referendum for the ballot. Finally, we hit Michigan, where Democrats just advanced a measure to have the state add its Electoral College votes to a multistate compact that would elect the president by the national popular vote.