Updated Mar 20, 2023, 12:40pm EDT

The 2024 GOP field navigates Donald Trump’s showdown with the Manhattan D.A.

Former President Donald Trump attends the NCAA wrestling championship.
Brett Rojo/USA TODAY

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The News

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Donald Trump’s prediction that he’d be “arrested on Tuesday” and call for “protest” put his Republican rivals on notice — denounce the investigation into hush money paid to cover up an alleged affair, or be on the wrong side of GOP leaders and most of their voters.

Over the weekend, after Trump wrote on Truth Social that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was about to charge him, his potential challengers for the Republican nomination were split.

Former Vice President Mike Pence told reporters in Iowa that Trump was facing “another politically charged prosecution,” asking why Bragg was focused on this “in the midst of a crime wave.” He echoed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who promised just hours after Trump’s post that the House GOP would probe whether “federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy.”

Other Republicans were circumspect. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley never mentioned Trump or his legal trouble at the Palmetto Family Council’s “Vision ‘24” forum. Neither did South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who is moving toward a presidential bid.

Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who closed out the day-long forum, lambasted both Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — “the beloved donor class favorites in this race”— for staying quiet.


“Join me in calling on the Manhattan district attorney to abandon this political persecution through prosecution,” Ramaswamy told reporters, as forum attendees gathered around him and cheered. “If you’re not going to stand up, then you need to step out.”

Trump’s call for supporters to “protest” and “take our nation back,” which immediately evoked fears of January 6th style violence, added another politically delicate wrinkle to the story for Republicans.

Even some of his farthest right supporters, like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, sounded reluctant to encourage that idea. McCarthy said Sunday that Americans should not attend protests and that Trump — implausibly — only meant they should “educate people about what’s going on” when he used the phrase.

At the Vision ‘24 forum, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told Semafor that Trump “needs to have his day in court” if charges are filed, and that Republicans needed to “pull back a little bit and not react just to social media posts.”

While “peaceful protest is always fine,” he said, a potential indictment was not a “time for protest” — it would be time for “the greatest system of justice in the world” to work.

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David’s view

I was struck by how common the view was on the right that an arrest would help Trump, even among conservative critics who are backing other candidates.

Rich Lowry summed up their thinking concisely: The “deliberate humiliation” of Trump would “rally more Republicans” to him. A Wall Street Journal poll last year found that 80% of GOP voters considered the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search last summer a “witch hunt,” far more than say they’d support Trump in a race with DeSantis et al. NewsCorp’s editorial line is never better for Trump than when he’s under investigation.

In this case, it was relatively easy for Republicans everywhere to join Trump in denouncing a Democratic District Attorney in Manhattan who was already a Fox News target for his crime policies. But this isn’t the first time Republicans who want to replace Trump have been asked to defend him from legal trouble — DeSantis immediately denounced the Mar-a-Lago search last summer — and it likely won’t be the last.

Getting on record defending Trump, early, has so far been a winner with primary voters. It’s a story DeSantis knows well: In “The Courage to Be Free,” he called himself “one of the earliest opponents in Congress of the Russia collusion investigation,” and criticized “the hesitance of some establishment Republicans to question the collusion narrative.” Now he’s facing similar denunciations from campaign rivals and Trump allies.

Former South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson, who has endorsed Haley over Trump, said that all Republicans needed to tread carefully.

“I don’t think an indictment matters at all for Trump, because his base is not moveable,” Dawson told Semafor. “But whether you’re Nikki Haley, who I’m for, or Tim Scott, who’s my friend — you’ve got to understand, you’ve got to keep his base’s enthusiasm if you’re the nominee. Crapping on Trump doesn’t help keep those people.”

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Room for Disagreement

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Trump ally turned antagonist who could run in 2024, did not buy the conventional wisdom on the right that Trump’s legal problems were an asset. “Being indicted I don’t think ever helps anybody,” he said in an appearance on “This Week” on ABC News.

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  • The New York Times looks at how Trump allies are trying to use his potential indictment to pressure DeSantis into responding on his behalf.