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GOP 2024 hopefuls are changing their tune on Trump’s indictments

Some Republican contenders finally think it’s safe enough to attack Trump.

In the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s multiple indictments, nearly all of Trump’s competitors in the Republican presidential race have rallied around him or kept their mouths shut. It looks like that wall of protection around the front-runner is finally beginning to crumble.

Several 2024 hopefuls, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., have begun to criticize Trump over his latest indictment, or at least suggest that the charges are worth taking seriously. It seems that Trump’s latest legal troubles could finally provide the basis for widespread negative attacks from his competitors. The question is whether the Republican base will actually care. 

It seems that Trump’s latest legal troubles could finally provide the basis for widespread negative attacks from his competitors.

After siding with Trump over his first indictment, in New York, Pence at first took a cautious approach to the second indictment. On Friday, before he had read the unsealed indictment, Pence said he was “deeply troubled to see this indictment,” but that he was waiting to see “the facts” that it would surface.

The former vice president’s tone changed this week. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Pence said the indictment contained “very serious allegations. And I can’t defend what is alleged.” He added that “the president is entitled to his day in court, he’s entitled to bring a defense, and I want to reserve judgment until he has the opportunity to respond.” (Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges.)

Haley made an even harder pivot. She sided firmly with Trump after his first indictment and initially after news of his second indictment. On Friday she tweeted, “This is not how justice should be pursued in our country.”

But on Monday, Haley struck a markedly different posture, as Politico noted. She told Fox News that while she believes the Justice Department and the FBI have “lost all credibility with the American people,” she also thought the charges brought against Trump raised serious questions about him. “If this indictment is true, if what it says is actually the case, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security,” Haley said. “This puts all of our military men and women in danger.”  

Scott has also wavered after initially siding with Trump last week. Politico reports that a campaign event in South Carolina on Monday, he decried a “double standard" for Republicans and Democrats but also called the federal indictment “a serious case with serious allegations.” 

There was even a hint of critique of Trump in a recent line from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “As a naval officer, if I would have taken classified [documents] to my apartment, I would have been court-martialed in a New York minute,” DeSantis told the North Carolina Republican convention Friday, just a day after objecting to “the weaponization of federal law enforcement.” He also then complained about unfair standards: “Is there a different standard for a Democrat secretary of state versus a former Republican president?” DeSantis said. “I think there needs to be one standard of justice in this country. Let’s enforce it on everybody and make sure we all know the rules. You can’t have one faction of society weaponizing the power of the state against factions that it doesn’t like and that’s what you see.”

A have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too pattern is emerging. These 2024 hopefuls are simultaneously arguing that the justice system is rigged against Republicans and saying that in this case the system is bringing forth legitimate charges. It’s an attempt to acknowledge the MAGA worldview about deep state conspiracies while also arguing that it looks increasingly like Trump may have done something wrong. 

This is far from the strongest version of the argument that Trump’s challengers can advance against him, and it’s unclear if it will work. After all, if in one breath a politician is calling the criminal justice system worthless and then in the next calling that system’s investigations legitimate, how seriously will the base take them? 

Yet one can see a potential synergy developing between Trump’s intensifying legal challenges and an increasingly emboldened Republican field. Perhaps some candidates will argue that Trump would suffer from an “electability” issue in the general election even if one thinks he’s innocent of all charges. But this will come down to voters: who they believe, what they trust. The Republican establishment failed to stigmatize Trump even during its best opportunity — the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection — and it’s unclear if it can wrest legitimacy from Trump at this stage in the game.