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Trump’s GOP Rivals Collectively Punt on the Indictment
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Trump’s GOP Rivals Collectively Punt on the Indictment

Plus: Will the Republican base care?

Former President Donald Trump at the North Carolina Republican Party convention on June 10, 2023. (Photo by Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Happy Monday! Anything interesting happen since our last edition?

Up to Speed

  • The Justice Department unsealed its 37-count indictment against former President Donald Trump Friday. The charges accuse Trump of willfully retaining hundreds of highly classified documents in his Palm Beach home after leaving office and obstructing the federal government’s efforts to retrieve them. 
  • Speaking before a friendly audience at the Georgia Republican Party convention on Saturday, former President Donald Trump blasted the indictment “witch hunt” aimed at hurting his 2024 presidential campaign. The convention also featured speeches from 2022 gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake of Arizona, and Republican presidential candidates Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy.
  • North Carolina Republican delegates censured GOP Sen. Thom Tillis on Saturday at their party convention for breaking the party platform, a thinly veiled swipe at his voting record on legislation involving gay marriage, immigration, and guns. View the resolution here.
  • Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt became the first fellow Republican governor to endorse Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign Saturday, announcing during a rally in Tulsa that he views the Florida governor as “the right guy to beat Biden for the next eight years.”

The Indictment Speaks …

When we hit your inboxes Friday morning with news that former President Donald Trump was being indicted on federal charges, there were few specifics to share about the charges themselves. Later on Friday, the 37-count indictment was unsealed, revealing prosecutors’ full account of how, they say, Trump illegally took classified documents from the White House to his Mar-a-Lago resort, stored them carelessly and unsafely in cardboard boxes scattered about that property and elsewhere, showed them off to people not cleared to see them on several occasions, and frustrated federal attempts to recover them prior to the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago last year.

Our colleagues at The Morning Dispatch have the full rundown, or you could read the indictment itself. But here’s the gist: Having improperly taken dozens of documents containing sensitive national security information from the White House upon leaving office, Trump dragged his heels through repeated attempts by the National Archives and Records Administration to get them back. This forced the government to play hardball: Last May, they subpoenaed Trump for the rest of the documents’ return.

But Trump doubled down. After first floating the idea of simply ignoring the subpoena, the indictment alleges, the former president agreed to let his lawyers search his papers for additional classified documents to hand back over—then tricked his own lawyers by moving a bunch of those papers from the storage room where they were being kept to his own personal residence.

Those lawyers, ignorant of the switch, went through what was left and returned what classified material they found to the government, attesting that that was the last of it. When the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago a few months later, they found 21 more secret and top secret documents relating to national defense information remaining in Trump’s possession.

Trump is charged with one count of willful retention of national defense information for each of these and for ten documents his lawyers handed over in June, with additional charges related to concocting the scheme to conceal them from the government and making false statements to investigators.  

For good measure, the indictment contains evidence that takes a sledgehammer to the main defense Trump made last summer in the wake of the search. None of the material had actually been classified, he argued then, since he had a “standing order” that anything he took from the Oval Office to Mar-a-Lago was deemed declassified by default. This was a ridiculous assertion even at the time: Former members of his administration came forward to assert that no such order existed. But the indictment slams the door even harder on that argument by revealing the existence of a recording of a 2021 conversation during which Trump showed a writer a “highly confidential” document and commented that “as president I could have declassified it” and that “now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”

Characteristically, Trump remains uncowed by neither the indictment nor its threats to his electoral chances.

“The ridiculous and baseless indictment of me by the Biden administration’s weaponized department of injustice will go down as among the most horrific abuses of power in the history of our country,” Trump said over the weekend at speeches at Republican Party conventions in Georgia and North Carolina.

… But the Challengers Don’t Pounce

The indictment against Trump contains allegations of serious crimes. 

More than that, it highlights an apparent contempt for the classification system the nation relies on to keep its state secrets secure. But for the most part, Trump’s opponents for next year’s Republican presidential nomination are treating the matter as a bigger risk for their own campaigns than for the former president.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, recently cleared by federal authorities after a probe into his own alleged mishandling of classified documents, seems determined to stake out a strong position on every aspect of this issue except the alleged actions that led to Trump’s indictment in the first place. 

Pence first demanded the Department of Justice unseal the indictment. That having happened, Pence is calling on Attorney General Merrick Garland to address the nation to explain the charges. (Special Counsel Jack Smith, who oversaw the investigation, did exactly this at a news conference Friday.) The former president is being treated unfairly, Pence said during his weekend address to the North Carolina GOP, and should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Republicans, he also declared, “know no one is above the law.”

On Sunday, wealthy biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy called on the press to investigate whether President Joe Biden had meddled with Smith’s investigation, despite lacking any basis for this conjecture. “This indictment selectively omits facts & law and *wreaks* [sic] of politicization,” Ramaswamy tweeted. “The real question is whose invisible hand is guiding it.”

Then there’s former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose strategy so far seems to be to say as little as possible about Trump’s indictment. A few hours before the charges were released, Haley tweeted that “it’s time to move beyond the endless drama and distractions.” She has not elaborated further since.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s top challenger in the race, focused on a supposed double standard at the Department of Justice in his own weekend speech to the North Carolina GOP. He brought up the government’s decision not to charge Hillary Clinton over her private email server ahead of the 2016 election, saying that if he had taken home classified documents while in the Navy, “I would have been court-martialed in a New York minute.”

“Is there a different standard for a Democrat secretary of state versus a former Republican president?” said DeSantis, a Navy veteran and former military lawyer. “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.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the exception to all of this vagueness and fence-sitting, was most blunt in his comments.

“Each case has to be looked at on its own merits. And the facts that are laid out here are damning in terms of Donald Trump’s conduct, and that’s what I think we as a party should be looking at,” Christie said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Do we really believe someone who engaged in this type of conduct is going to be the best person to put up against Joe Biden?”

Will the Base Care?

It’s not hard to see why Trump’s challengers are treating his latest indictment with kid gloves: For the most part, the base just doesn’t seem to care. Audrey was on the ground at the Georgia GOP convention over the weekend, where she collected a cornucopia of rationalizations and excuses from the delegates in attendance. “Even people on the left are starting to see it truly is a witch hunt,” one delegate told her, “when so many people on the left have gotten away with basically murder, and never been charged with having to pay for the crimes they’ve committed.”

Still, it’s remarkable to see how thoroughly most of Trump’s competitors for the Republican nomination have seemingly despaired of persuading voters they’re pursuing that any given criticism of the former president coming from his enemies is valid.

Much has been said of the strategic decision by DeSantis and others to attack Trump exclusively from the right. But the classified documents scandal should enrich our understanding of what attacking “from the right” means. After all it would be easy, were DeSantis to hit Trump on this subject, to cast that critique in rhetoric that resonates with Republicans, using his own Navy experience to highlight the dangers of Trump’s casual contempt for protecting highly sensitive national security secrets.   

But only attacking Trump from the right, it turns out, doesn’t just mean declining to hit him from the center on policy. If Democrats are attacking Trump on a given matter, DeSantis and most of his other Republican challengers are going to refuse to take up that same critique, period. It simply doesn’t matter how bad the conduct is that Trump is accused of, how damaging to the country the consequences could have been, or how open-and-shut the evidentiary case is: They calculate that throwing in with the critique will hurt their standing among voters more than it will hurt Trump’s own. It’s a testament to how thoroughly the reactionary posture of “if the libs and the media are mad, he must be doing something right” has colonized the Republican voting base.

It also underscores the momentous task facing these contenders. Wresting the mantle of party leadership away from the man who remade that party in his image is hard enough. Doing it while conspicuously refusing to make common cause with anybody outside that party? That’s even harder.

Notable and Quotable

“If even half of it is true then he’s toast. It’s a very detailed indictment, and it’s very, very damning … He was totally wrong that he had the right to have those documents. Those documents are among the most sensitive secrets the country has.” 

—Former Trump Attorney General William Barr on Fox News Sunday, Sunday, June 11

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.