You’re a presidential candidate. The leading candidate in the race, the guy you have to dethrone to get anywhere, has just been indicted on federal criminal charges. How do you respond?
If your answer is any of the following:
A) Cite the completely unrelated legal troubles of the current president’s son as if they’re relevant.
B) Refer to the alleged “weaponization” of the federal government.
C) Call for criminal defendants to be able to move their court cases from the location where the alleged crimes were committed if that location happens to be Washington, D.C.
D) I’m suing the Justice Department.
Then congratulations, you’re ready to be a Republican presidential candidate!
Part of the criminal charges against Trump revolve around his efforts to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence into refusing to certify then-President-Elect Joe Biden’s electoral win, but Pence remained tepid in his response to the indictment. He did very delicately suggest that Trump shouldn’t be running for president, saying both “anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States” and that Trump’s “candidacy means more talk about January 6th and more distractions.”
“Our country is more important than one man. Our Constitution is more important than any one man’s career,” Pence said. “On January 6th, Former President Trump demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. I chose the Constitution and I always will.”
That’s all well and good, but as a direct witness to Trump’s crimes and as the intended victim of the mob Trump incited to attack the Capitol, Pence should have a lot more to say. Saying, as Pence did, that Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence is just plain weird when he knows, very personally, that Trump is not innocent.
And Pence couldn’t bring himself to be critical of Trump and Trump alone on the occasion of Trump’s indictment. He just had to throw in, “As Americans, his candidacy means less attention paid to Joe Biden’s disastrous economic policies afflicting millions across the United States and to the pattern of corruption with Hunter.” I mean … what? What is that “as Americans” even doing in that sentence? And the definitive reference to “the pattern of corruption with Hunter” is pretty rich given how lacking the evidence of said pattern of corruption is, and that this entirely irrelevant aside comes right after Trump deserving the presumption of innocence in Pence’s statement.
If Pence, as witness and intended victim, should have sterner words about the charges, other candidates have their own incentives to use this against Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a distant second in the race with big ambitions. He has the most to gain from Trump running into problems, but he doesn’t have the nerve to go for it.
“As President, I will end the weaponization of government, replace the FBI Director, and ensure a single standard of justice for all Americans,” DeSantis tweeted. So he kicked it off with the Republican “weaponization of government” talking point, itself a projection onto Democrats of what Trump tried to do and other Republicans would be happy to run with. Then he pledged to replace an FBI director originally appointed by Trump, and then said the opposite of what he’s looking to do. He doesn’t want a single standard of justice for all Americans! This whole statement is in opposition to Trump facing the standard that applies to regular people.
DeSantis continued, “While I’ve seen reports, I have not read the indictment. I do, though, believe we need to enact reforms so that Americans have the right to remove cases from Washington, DC to their home districts.” People are tried where their crimes are committed. That’s why Trump is being tried in Florida for keeping classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and obstructing the federal government’s efforts to reclaim them, as well as being tried in Washington, D.C., for crimes he committed there. DeSantis is a lawyer and he knows this is absolute dishonest nonsense, but he had to say something suggesting that Trump was a victim here.
“Washington, DC is a ‘swamp’ and it is unfair to have to stand trial before a jury that is reflective of the swamp mentality,” he added, as if Trump would be facing a jury of lobbyists and members of the deep state. What he really means is, “Most residents of Washington, D.C., are Democrats and a lot of them are Black. I don’t think any Republican should ever be held accountable by the likes of them.”
He concluded, “One of the reasons our country is in decline is the politicization of the rule of law. No more excuses—I will end the weaponization of the federal government.” Yes, the guy who recently suggested the state of Florida should investigate Bud Light for doing a social media promotion with a trans influencer is deeply opposed to the weaponization of government. This entire statement is DeSantis being unable or unwilling to directly defend Trump but needing to find ways to attack Democrats and the legal system rather than admitting he couldn’t do so—even though, again, DeSantis needs Trump’s campaign to crash and burn if he’s going to have a shot.
Sen. Tim Scott, the guy who’s hoping DeSantis will crash and burn (or, really, continue crashing and burning) so he can have a shot at being the second-place guy who hopes Trump will crash and burn took a somewhat similar approach. “I remain concerned about the weaponization of Biden’s DOJ and its immense power used against political opponents,” he tweeted. “What we see today are two different tracks of justice. One for political opponents and another for the son of the current president.” This is, again, total nonsense, code for “crimes by Republicans should never be investigated,” and a projection onto Democrats of Trump’s constant desire to “lock up” his political opponents, with the mandatory reference to “Hunter Biden,” a name that’s become a code word for a long list of Republican conspiracy theories.
None of these could compare to the absolutely wild and extremely long response from Vivek Ramaswamy, the Some Dude candidate who is currently running in third place. He’s suing the Justice Department because it hasn’t responded to his FOIA requests for information on the special counsel’s investigation, he said, and Trump’s indictment is an outrage because, “In U.S. v. Alvarez, the Supreme Court held that political candidates have a First Amendment right to knowingly make inaccurate statements.” This is not what U.S. v. Alvarez was about. “If you're going to indict a former president and leading presidential candidate, it better not be based on unprecedented legal theory.” I am not a lawyer but I feel on solid ground saying that this man does not know what he’s talking about when it comes to precedent and legal theory.
Ramaswamy then launched into another interesting legal theory of his own, writing, “Further, it's more than a stretch to call something criminal if someone is seeking legal counsel from their own lawyers. Jack Smith has created a dangerous precedent by criminalizing the behavior of Trump's lawyers who offered him legal advice, labeling them co-conspirators instead.” So, what, it’s impossible for a lawyer to offer illegal advice? And if you’re following your lawyer’s advice, it would be “more than a stretch” to call your ensuing actions criminal? Organized crime is going to want to get right on this.
To be sure, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, both in the race as critics of Donald Trump, had stern words about the indictment. Hutchinson, polling at 0.7%, renewed his call for Trump to drop out. Christie, currently polling at 1.6%, tweeted, “The events around the White House from election night forward are a stain on our country’s history & a disgrace to the people who participated. This disgrace falls the most on Donald Trump. He swore an oath to the Constitution, violated his oath & brought shame to his presidency.”
But Christie and Hutchinson are there to make exactly that type of statement. They don’t think they’re winning even if Trump collapses as a candidate. The people who hope to win, or who hope to be vice president or top administration officials if Trump gets back in the White House? They cannot be honest about the real basis for this indictment. And if they can’t quite bring themselves to say he’s innocent, well, they can always distract by attacking Hunter Biden. Once again, the responses to something involving Donald Trump show that the vast majority of Republican elected officials range from gutless cowards to people willing to embrace Trump-style authoritarianism because they think it might benefit themselves or their party.