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Republican 2024 hopefuls hand Trump the nomination

As Trump faces a growing set of criminal charges, his rivals decline to use his greatest weakness against him.

In a typical political campaign, candidates would see a prosecutor's leveling of criminal charges against the race's front-runner as a godsend. Politicians will almost always seize upon the slightest whiff of impropriety surrounding an opponent to help build a case against that person. And if the accused front-runner were facing dozens of historic criminal charges, which are based on misconduct that had been heavily covered in the press, it would seem that capitalizing on these legal woes is almost obligatory.

Yet as former President Donald Trump faces yet another indictment, most of his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination aren't just declining to use the charges against him. They're rallying behind him.

That Trump's rivals are largely gifting him with solidarity reflects a nervous calculation that Republican voters will side with him against every indictment, no matter how bad they look. It also speaks to the party's increasing comfort with disregarding the rule of law. In the process, other would-be nominees are helping Trump secure the nomination by giving up what could be their best weapon against him.

Other would-be nominees are helping Trump secure the nomination by giving up what could be their best weapon against him.

After news emerged on Thursday that Trump was being indicted over his mishandling of classified documents, most 2024 contenders swiftly denounced the indictment and sided with the former president. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decried "the weaponization of federal law enforcement" and promised to "bring accountability" to the Justice Department (read: stack the department with political sympathizers) as president. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina also lamented the so-called "weaponization" of DOJ and implied that they've violated a legal presumption of innocence, despite the fact that no such thing has happened. Former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy called the indictment an "affront to every citizen" and promised to pardon Trump on his first day in office. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley tweeted, "This is not how justice should be pursued in our country," and called for the country to "move beyond the endless drama and distractions." 

A couple candidates took on a more measured tone, expressing some ambivalence toward the charges. Former Vice President Mike Pence said during an interview on Friday that he was "deeply troubled to see this indictment,” but also staked out a wait-and-see position: “We have to protect our nation’s secrets, and my only hope is as we learn about the facts of this indictment next week, that the American people will see in this case that it would meet a high standard necessary to justify the unprecedented federal indictment of a former president of the United States."

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, despite promising to bring the heat to Trump in the 2024 race, took an even more restrained position than Pence: "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," Christie tweeted Thursday. “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."

One notable exception was former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson. "With the news that Donald Trump has been indicted for the second time, our country finds itself in a position that weakens our democracy," Hutchinson said in a statement. "Donald Trump’s actions — from his willful disregard for the Constitution to his disrespect for the rule of law — should not define our nation or the Republican Party."

To recap, most 2024 contenders sided with Trump, a handful quietly asked the public to wait to learn more, and just one candidate so far has dared to criticize Trump. Trump might be furious about the indictment, but so far he doesn't have to worry about his opponents goring him with it.

The collective act of generosity from Trump's competitors can be explained both through political and ideological lenses. Politically, many Republicans believe that the cult of Trump and his persecution complex is too risky to provoke. Admitting that the indictments could reflect a truly independent and fair legal process would be out of step with the base, a huge chunk of which buys into Trump's deep state conspiracy theories. Ideologically speaking, it's clear that the mainstream GOP is comfortable with authoritarian tendencies, as displayed by their cool reaction to the Jan. 6 insurrection. It's not a surprise that they are happy to delegitimize the criminal justice system and encourage the public to see it as political arena.

But even taking these calculations into account, it's still bizarre that almost none of the Republican 2024 contenders are seeing the indictments as an opportunity to label Trump unelectable in the general election. Trump is currently on his way to dominating the primaries, and as long as they're unwilling to point out even his most obvious new vulnerability, it'll remain that way.