The unprecedented indictment of former President Donald Trump triggered a predictable flood of polarized political reactions on Thursday evening, with Republicans condemning and Democrats celebrating the decision by the Manhattan grand jury.
One by one in the hours that followed, all of the Republican hopefuls for the White House in 2024 defended the former president. Though not surprising, the unity among Trump’s political opponents is a twist in the years-long drama that offers a glimpse into the state of the 2024 presidential primary and the next act in Trump-era American politics.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the current front-runner in the field of Republicans looking to oust Trump in the primary, called the move by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg un-American. Former Vice President Mike Pence, speaking on CNN the same evening, called it “a bad decision by a political prosecutor.” Nikki Haley, who unlike Pence and DeSantis has made her presidential bid official, said “this is more about revenge than it is about justice.”
In the hard-knocks arena of a political primary, an indictment against the front-runner would usually create an opening for the rest of the pack to pounce. But the unusual unity among the opponents suggests this is no usual indictment.
Haley, Pence, and DeSantis all say the indictment is a political attack. So did Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur who launched his 2024 bid in an interview with Tucker Carlson in February. In saying so, all four imply that Bragg is conducting an improperly motivated prosecution. This would add the pending Manhattan trial to the long line of investigations and legal action against Trump which both Republican voters and GOP politicians view as an improper use of the justice system against political opponents.
Trump has made the weaponization of the justice system and the government at large a central theme of his 2024 presidential campaign. Before opening his speech at the first official 2024 rally in Waco, Texas, the president stood hand-over-heart, in silence, as the loudspeakers played “Justice for All,” a song performed by the January 6 Prison Choir. He has vowed to pardon all of the Jan. 6 defendants and prisoners, who he describes as victims of political persecution.
The former president views himself as the primary target of the so-called weaponization. In a statement responding to news of the indictment, he listed the prior episodes in the drama: special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, the two impeachment trials, and the raid of his personal residence in Mar-a-Lago.
“This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history,” Trump said in response to the indictment.
In challenging Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination, all of the contenders have to play a field in which the former president enjoys widespread loyalty from the Republican voter base. While the base has varying views on Trump’s blow-for-blow political style, the voters are passionate about Trump’s agenda for the nation. As a result, candidates who side with the Manhattan district attorney, even by declining to condemn the prosecution, risk alienating a portion of the base and imperiling an already narrow path to the nomination.
The impact of the indictment on the 2024 primary may be further diminished by the legal nature of the case, which reportedly relies on a legal theory untested in the courts.
“I honestly think that this indictment will be a footnote in history and will have zero impact on the Republican primary and the 2024 general election,” Brian Darling, a Republican strategist, told The Epoch Times.
“The legal result will be months and months of appeals on motions to dismiss and other procedural hurdles that come up because this is an unprecedented case of first impression. Expect a long drawn out process and the American people quickly losing interest because the stakes in the case are so low.”
The political firestorm over the case has already extended far beyond the legal realm. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said lawmakers would hold Bragg “accountable” for his actions. Republican chairmen of the House judiciary, oversight, and administration committees are already conducting oversight into the district attorney’s prosecution. The chairmen pressed for more records on Bragg’s work in a letter on March 25, pointing out that both Bragg and the judge in New York who will oversee Trump’s case earned their posts by winning popular political elections in an overwhelmingly Democrat jurisdiction.
The letter from the chairmen highlights the aspect of the Trump indictment which may be playing into each 2024 contender’s decision to defend the former president. Those who are serious about winning could be facing the prospect of similar prosecutions, the three senior Republican lawmakers argue.
“If state or local prosecutors are able to engage in politically motivated prosecutions of Presidents of the United States (former or current) for personal acts, this could have a profound impact on how Presidents choose to exercise their powers while in office,” Reps. James Comer (R-Ky.), Bryan Steil (R-Wisc.), and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) wrote.
“For example, a President could choose to avoid taking action he believes to be in the national interest because it would negatively impact New York City for fear that he would be subject to a retaliatory prosecution in New York City.”
No prominent Democrat politician voiced agreement with Trump’s Republican 2024 opponents. The top Democrats in the House and Senate said the indictment is proof that the rule of law, not politics, is at play.
“Donald Trump is subject to the same laws as every American. He will be able to avail himself of the legal system and a jury, not politics, to determine his fate according to the facts and the law,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Twitter.
“The preeminence of the rule of law is central to the integrity of our democracy. It must be applied equally without fear or favor,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said on Twitter.
According to Democrat Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz, the legal ramifications of the case could nonetheless spell trouble for Republicans and Democrats alike.
“What’s really unprecedented is not the indictment of a past president, but the indictment of a potential future president who is running against the head of the party of the man who indicted him,” Dershowitz told The Epoch Times. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“It really endangers the rule of law for all Americans. Today, it’s Trump; tomorrow, it’s a Democrat,” Dershowitz added. “The day after tomorrow, it’s your uncle Charlie, or your niece, or your nephew.”
Gary Bai and Mark Tapscott contributed to this report.