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Trump’s Indictment Confounds Challengers
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Trump’s Indictment Confounds Challengers

Plus: Club for Growth VP and former DeSantis staffer Scott Parkinson files to run for Senate in Virginia.

Protesters gather in front of Trump Tower in New York City Friday after a grand jury voted to indict former President Donald Trump. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Happy Monday! Quinnipiac conducted a poll last month asking registered voters: “Do you think the Manhattan District Attorney’s case involving former President Donald Trump is mainly motivated by politics or mainly motivated by the law?” Some 62 percent of registered voters said they think the case is motivated by “mainly politics” and 32 percent think it’s motivated by “mainly law.” The politics/law divide becomes much more interesting when broken down by party affiliation: Republicans (93/5), Democrats (29/66), Independents (70/26).

Up to Speed

  • Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told ABC News on Sunday that he’s running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. “It’s still about retail politics in many of these states, and also, this is one of the most unpredictable political environments that I’ve seen in my lifetime. So my message of experience, of consistent conservatism and hope for our future in solving problems that face Americans, I think that that resonates,” Hutchinson said. He thinks Trump should drop out of the race because of the indictment—a break with several other current and would-be contenders who have defended the former president.
  • Former House Intelligence Chairman and GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan told CBS News he’s “kicking some tires” and strongly considering running for president in 2024. “No candidate, declared or not, will determine my decision to get in the race in spring or fall,” Rogers said.
  • Fueling rumors he will run for governor or U.S. Senate in 2024, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, said last week he will make an “important announcement” Tuesday about his political future. That news comes as Republican Gov. Jim Justice strongly considers running for U.S. Senate in 2024, when Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is up.
  • Democratic Sen. John Fetterman was discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday after spending roughly six weeks of in-patient treatment for clinical depression, his office said in a statement. Following the Senate’s upcoming two week recess, Fetterman will return to the U.S. Capitol on April 17.
  • House Administration Chairman and GOP Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin told a local news outlet last week that he’s not planning to challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2024.

GOP Presidential Contenders Are Giving Cover to Trump

The indictment of Donald Trump has thrown nearly every Republican presidential contender off course—except the former president himself. 

Despite the specter of a criminal trial now hanging over Trump, much has stayed the same for the Republican frontrunner. His 2024 messaging remains the same: Evil domestic forces are targeting me to punish you (or some such). His schedule largely remains the same, except for Tuesday’s scheduled detour to Manhattan for his arraignment. And the candidate continues to rake in campaign cash and lead the race for the Republican nomination. 

But some dynamics have changed. Trump is raising even more money than before. And, his lead in the nascent Republican primary has grown, according to polls conducted since late Thursday, when Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, filed a sealed grand jury indictment against the 45th president. All of these developments were highlighted in a Trump campaign memorandum from senior strategists Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles Sunday evening.

“In the 24 hours following the sham indictment, Americans from all 50 states donated over $4 million to President Trump’s campaign, with over 25% of donations coming from first-time donors. An additional $1 million was raised in the second 24 hours,” read a conventional memo distributed to the media. “As the president’s America first movement grows, and grassroots conservatives coalesce behind him as the clear frontrunner, the Trump campaign is intently focused on organizing nationally and building robust coalitions in key early states.” 

Meanwhile, Trump’s competitors for the Republican presidential nomination are scrambling.

At least a few of Trump’s current and would-be primary opponents had been inching toward open warfare against the frontrunner. But rather than do what Trump most assuredly would have done—pounce on the indictment (and the legal jeopardy he faces in two additional investigations) to make the case for new leadership atop the GOP, they immediately abandoned their budding attacks and rushed to the former president’s defense. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, expected to announce his White House bid as early as next month, is the biggest threat to a third consecutive Trump nomination, and Trump has been attacking him, unprovoked, for several weeks. Last month, DeSantis finally started fighting back. Then came the indictment. The governor swiftly declared Trump the victim of “the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda.”

“Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this Soros-backed Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda,” DeSantis said, despite lacking authority to block an extradition. (Perhaps seeing how well the indictment is working for him politically in the GOP primary, it appears Trump has no plans to take DeSantis up on his offer of protection.)

But DeSantis isn’t alone. 

Almost every Republican running against Trump, or thinking of running against him, did the same. Nikki Haley, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations, told Fox News that Bragg indicted Trump because he is seeking partisan retribution. “When you get into political prosecutions like this, it’s more about revenge than justice,” she said. Former Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump has criticized mercilessly, called the indictment an “outrage,” adding it “should be offensive to every American.”

Republicans’ defenses of Trump are now overshadowing the affirmative arguments candidates should be making for themselves. With Trump sure to be embroiled in legal controversy for the foreseeable future, the question is whether Republicans who want to replace him can set the agenda for the campaign rather than simply responding to events. 

With the first Republican primary debates still four months away, and some likely Trump competitors yet to launch their campaigns, there’s still time for a turnaround. Some Republican strategists note that the past four days echo the race for the GOP nomination eight years ago.

“Trump’s superpower is his ability to judo his enemies’ hatred into a springboard for his own ambition,” a veteran GOP consultant said. “Part of it comes from a shameless willingness to ride any misstep like a skateboard and part of it is a bravado bordering on recklessness that gets him into missteps, and part of it is the media’s greedy symbiosis with him.”

Among notable Republican contenders, only former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who called for Trump to drop out of the race and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seem to be willing to use the former president’s legal troubles against him.

“There can be legitimate questions raised about Alvin Bragg’s conduct in this and his lack of use of prosecutorial discretion,” Christie said Sunday on ABC News’ This Week. But he then went a step further than most other Republicans.

“All this bravado from the Trump camp is baloney,” said Christie, a former federal prosecutor. “He’s going to be charged officially on Tuesday. He’s going to have to be mug-shotted, finger-printed, and he’s going to face a criminal trial in Manhattan. He’s not going to be able to avoid it. You can’t make that a good day under any circumstances.”

The GOP Shadow Senate Primary in Virginia

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s surprise upset in 2021 has left the Virginia GOP wondering: Do Republicans really have a chance of flipping two-term Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine’s seat in 2024?

Scott Parkinson certainly seems to think so: He filed paperwork for the “Parkinson for Senate” fundraising committee with the Federal Election Commission on Sunday. (The Dispatch first reported Parkinson’s interest in challenging Kaine in late February.)

Minutes after he released his campaign launch video Monday morning, Parkinson indicated in an interview with The Dispatch that his 2024 Senate run will focus on Kaine’s reputation as a moderate, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “At the beginning of 2020, when the pandemic really broke out, the economy got crushed,” he said. “There’s a lot of votes and policy to adjudicate here in Tim Kaine’s record and I think that that certainly makes him vulnerable.”

“When you look at Kaine’s votes for the Biden stimulus, the Inflation Reduction Act, all the coronavirus relief, when you look at the bipartisan infrastructure deal that they voted for, you realize he’s voting with Bernie Sanders 94 percent of the time,” Parkinson continued. “That’s not a blue dog.”

Parkinson’s nearly two-decade career in Republican politics stretches from Capitol Hill—where he worked for three Republican U.S. senators, served as executive director on the House Republican Study Committee, and became chief of staff to then-GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis—to Tallahassee, where he served as a senior staffer on DeSantis’ gubernatorial transition team. He works as vice president of government affairs for the Club for Growth, an anti-tax conservative advocacy group. 

But if Parkinson wants to challenge Kaine in 2024, he’ll have to win the Republican nomination first. And that’s no sure thing if he gets a primary challenge from Hung Cao, a Vietnamese refugee and retired Navy captain.* Cao lost a congressional bid to Rep. Jennifer Wexton in November by 6.6 points in a district Biden carried by 18 points in 2020. 

Cao met with senior officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in early March and is still weighing his options. “Captain Cao has been humbled by the many Virginians, and others around the country, who have encouraged him to consider a run for the Senate in 2024 and he is strongly considering it,” Tim Saler, an adviser to Cao, said in a statement.

Both Parkinson and Cao, if he runs, would try to ride the high of Youngkin’s upset of Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (In a move that demonstrates just how much he’s leaning on the Youngkin playbook already, Parkinson’s team has hired Axiom Strategies, WPA Intelligence, and Poolhouse Strategies—three GOP consultancy, polling, and advertising firms that proved pivotal to the Virginia governor’s 2021 victory. Axiom’s Ethan Zorfas will serve as Parkinson’s general consultant.)

But “Tim Kaine is not Terry McAuliffe,” one Virginia-based Democratic operative said over the weekend. 

Challenging a two-term Democratic incumbent in a blue-leaning state during a presidential year is already an ambitious bet. But Kaine is also a battle-tested incumbent who beat his 2018 Republican challenger by 16 points and whose résumé includes stints as former Richmond mayor, governor, lieutenant governor, Democratic National Committee chairman, and the Democratic Party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee.

So it might be tough to convince Republican-affiliated Senate super PACs and committees to invest heavily in Virginia next cycle when Democrat-held seats are up for grabs in redder-leaning battlegrounds like Montana, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.

“Let there be no doubt: Mr. Parkinson is no Senator Kaine,” said Liam Watson, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. “As Senator Kaine continues to serve as a model Christian and public official, Mr. Parkinson, an ex-DeSantis staffer and Trump acolyte, has railed against the Affordable Care Act and Virginians’ right to choose.”

Parkinson remains optimistic there’s a path for Republicans to flip Virginia in 2024. “He’s lost his way,” he said of Kaine. 

Parkinson lives in Arlington, a northern Virginia suburb, with his wife and four children.

Eyes on the Trail

  • ‘DeSantis the Decider’ Be sure to read Drucker’s latest dispatch from Tallahassee, in which he profiles Ron DeSantis’ leadership style and chronicles the Florida governor’s presidential aspirations. “Veteran Republican insiders in Florida’s capital who have worked closely with DeSantis describe an active, disciplined leader who is supremely confident in his own judgment, does his homework and relishes making decisions,” Drucker reports. “Yet for all of his conviction as an executive and recent success at the ballot box, doubts aplenty about DeSantis’ ability to navigate the campaign trail exist among the Florida lobbyists, political operatives and elected officials who spoke to The Dispatch for this story. Both sides of DeSantis will play a pivotal role in determining the course of his likely presidential campaign.”
  •  What’s the latest with Lee Zeldin? After coming within striking distance of defeating New York’s Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul in November, former six-term GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin seems to be lying low. He recently launched a new public affairs firm and political action committee, Leadership America Needs, to boost turnout among younger and minority voters. As for his future political ambitions?  “He definitely is interested in pursuing some sort of public office in the future. When or what it might be, we still don’t know,” a source close to Zeldin told The Dispatch.

Notable and Quotable

“Don’t ask me that question … print that.”

–Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, asked by Politico whether she will challenge Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in 2024

Presented Without Comment

Correction April 3, 2023: A previous edition of this newsletter incorrectly stated Hung Cao is a retired Army captain. He’s a retired Navy captain.

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.