“The irony,” a Republican strategist mused to Semafor on the day a jury found former president Donald Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation, “is that Trump would absolutely use this against anyone else.”
But Trump is Trump, of course, and the rules are well established. “Imitating his tactics is unwise,” the strategist said. “I mean, can you imagine someone heckling him on stage with this?”
On Tuesday, the legal system handed Donald Trump’s 2024 opponents a hammer that could knock out almost any politician in America: A jury partially sided with writer E. Jean Carroll in her civil suit against Trump, and awarded her $5 million. (The jury did not find that Trump raped her, another allegation she’d levied.)
Predictably, few took it. Much of the presumptive 2024 field — including former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and former Ambassador Nikki Haley — sidestepped giving a clear opinion, remained silent, or declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy — whose slight rise in recent polls drew a compliment from Trump just the other day — defended the former president, telling Semafor in a statement the verdict was a “part of the establishment system's anaphylactic immune response against its chief political virus, Donald Trump” (the virus was a good thing in this metaphor).
One 2024 candidate did issue a sharp rebuke in the wake of the verdict: “The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump,” former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement.
And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — another rare opponent unafraid to directly target Trump — plans to address the news later this morning on Brian Kilmeade’s radio show.
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Shelby and Morgan's View
The 2024 field’s response (or lack thereof, in most cases) to the guilty verdict underscores a larger issue that presidential hopefuls are grappling with: Can you go after Trump — on any issue, big or small — without alienating a large swath of Republican voters?
Republicans who spoke to Semafor expected Trump would easily parry any attacks on his latest legal travail, pointing to the Manhattan court, the major Democratic donor who bankrolled Carroll’s suit, or by claiming victory over the jury not finding him liable for rape.
Trump remained defiant after the verdict, writing on Truth Social that he has “ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHO THIS WOMAN IS” and lamenting that the result was “A CONTINUATION OF THE GREATEST WITCH HUNT OF ALL TIME.”
“Trump has a base that will stick with him through thick and thin, and trying to use these court proceedings against him will only strengthen the resolve of Trump supporters,” one GOP strategist told Semafor.
Can’t attack him for being arrested, can’t attack him for losing a suit involving heinous allegations, can’t attack him for being investigated over classified documents, or efforts to overturn the election — the list of topics that candidates are reluctant to bring up is a long one at this stage in the race, and they’re increasingly in the news. His 2024 rivals and critics are still figuring out which aspects of his record and post-presidency are safe to touch.
In this case, his opponents are operating from direct experience. Trump won the 2016 election despite backlash over comments he made on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape bragging about how celebrities can grab women by their genitals — which he defended in a deposition in the Carroll suit as “largely true, unfortunately, or fortunately.”
Even Pence refused to defend Trump after the tape’s release in 2016, and a number of prominent Republicans announced they wouldn’t vote for him in the general election. But after Trump’s upset victory, those who broke ranks faced attacks in primary campaigns over it. The topic rarely came up again. DeSantis even made a point in his latest book of noting that he kept knocking on doors for Trump through election day when others did not.
Pence, who was scheduled to attend an event at the Center for Christian Virtue on Tuesday, was less quick to judge this time around. “I would tell you, in my four-and-a-half years serving alongside the president, I never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature,” he told NBC News.
Room for Disagreement
Some Republicans think the cumulative effect of the many cases surrounding Trump could matter eventually in the primary, but they don’t sound especially confident.
“This should give Trump’s rivals more ammo to say that Trump has too much chaos and drama to win,” former RNC communications director Doug Heye said. “But we’ve said that before and it hasn’t happened.”
- Democrats have also been reluctant to focus on sexual misconduct allegations against Donald Trump since the 2016 election. But some think the latest case could be relevant in 2024. “Unfortunately this sexual assault verdict will not have a negative impact on Trump's GOP primary race, however in the general election, the 2024 gender gap likely just became a much wider & deeper gulf for the GOP, particularly in the suburbs,” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher tweeted.