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Why Trump’s GOP Rivals Aren’t Piling On
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Why Trump’s GOP Rivals Aren’t Piling On

Plus: Inside the RNC’s post-2022 midterms autopsy.

Former Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! We know many Democrats have been having a lot of fun posting online about the former president’s latest legal trouble over his handling of classified documents, but we’re still begging Hillary Clinton to sit this one out.

Up to Speed

  • Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday afternoon to 37 federal felony charges of willfully retaining highly classified documents after he left office and conspiring to obstruct government efforts to recover them. The federal magistrate judge who oversaw Tuesday’s arraignment in Miami ordered Trump and his co-defendant Waltine Nauta not to discuss the case except through their attorneys. A crowd of Trump backers protested the charges outside the courthouse but remained peaceful.
  • Trump returned to his New Jersey property after the arraignment to give a defiant speech before a second group of supporters, proclaiming that the day would “go down in infamy,” denouncing the indictment as a sham, and pledging to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Biden family if he is reelected. The crowd responded with chants of “lock him up!”
  • The indictment continued to divide Trump’s challengers for the Republican nomination Tuesday. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy traveled to the Miami courthouse ahead of Trump to announce he would pardon Trump if elected and demand other candidates say the same. But much of the field was moving in the other direction. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, said that “the former president has a right to his day in court.” Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Trump’s alleged conduct was “incredibly reckless” if true, while South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott called it a “serious case with serious allegations.”
  • Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance vowed Tuesday afternoon to place procedural holds on nearly all Justice Department nominees—except for those up for confirmation to the U.S. Marshals Service—in response to Trump’s indictment.
  • The White House distanced itself from Rose Montoya, a transgender influencer, after Montoya posted a topless picture on social media taken on the White House lawn during a pride party hosted by President Biden. “This behavior is inappropriate and disrespectful for any event at the White House,” a spokesperson said, adding that Montoya would not be invited back.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday that the year-over-year consumer price index was four percent in May, down from 4.9 percent in April, marking the lowest inflation rate in more than two years. 

What Are They Thinking?

Vivek Ramaswamy says the federal indictment against Donald Trump is outrageous and wants the entire Republican field to pledge to pardon him. Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie think the evidence is “damning” and shows he’s unfit for office, while Mike Pence says that “I cannot defend what is alleged” and that Trump has a right to a trial. The rest of Trump’s challengers are hovering in the middle—allowing when asked by reporters that Trump’s alleged conduct is troubling but making sure to denounce supposed prosecutorial double standards at the Justice Department.

If you’re hoping to beat Trump eventually, why not take the opportunity to kick him while he’s down? We reached out to the campaigns and affiliated super PACs of all Trump’s challengers to ask, letting their strategists speak anonymously to get an unfiltered sense of the strategy at play.

You can’t beat Trump if they don’t know who you are.

For us media types, the 2024 GOP primary is already well into the battle royale phase, with every candidate attack and counterattack shaping and advancing the overall story. But with the first primary debate still months away, most primary voters aren’t following along closely yet, and they might not know many of the candidates at all. So if your name isn’t Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, the task of the moment is building out your ground game and creating a positive personal brand.

“Our focus is on winning the GOP nomination, not litigating Trump’s latest devastating charges,” a staffer for one rival super PAC says. “Our Iowa door-to-door efforts will continue to ramp up as we watch his support drop.”

“I think it’s a matter of, how do you introduce yourself to voters?” says a spokesman for one campaign. As a cautionary tale, he points to the moment back in March, fresh off Trump’s first indictment in New York, when DeSantis took a quick passing shot at “what goes into paying hush money to a porn star.”

“Great line for cable news, great line for getting coverage,” the spokesman says. “But at the end of the day, though, voters don’t see it that way. They see a politically motivated charge … just someone else trying out to get Trump. They may not want to vote for Trump again, but they see it as a politically motivated thing.”

That’s not to say the time will never come for more direct attacks. But if you’re a candidate who’s only just introducing yourself to Republican voters, you may not want the second or third fact planted in their minds about you to be “allied with Democrats and the media in attacking Trump.”

If Republican voters turn on Trump, it will have less to do with any specific controversy than with their cumulative effect.

Here’s a term Trump rivals like to talk about a lot: Trump fatigue. There’s no story coming, no matter how damning the details, that will suddenly rupture the former president from his base, they argue—at this point, voters just throw them on the scandals pile without looking too closely. But they argue that the bigger that pile grows, the more voters might start peeling away from Trump out of sheer exhaustion and a growing sense that he can no longer win a general election.

“I think that people are beginning to realize the liability side of it, right?” says one strategist with a rival 2024 affiliation. “And as Biden and his policies continue to trend downwards and worsen and hurt the American people, I think folks will start to drop off because beating the Democrats in ’24 is more important to them overall.”

For Trump rivals, the strategist added, hastening that process isn’t necessarily part of the mission: “I think it’s gonna happen organically almost.”

Here’s the super PAC staffer again: “Trump’s 50 percent support is not maintainable over time as the repetition of these serious charges sinks in to conservative voters who want to win again.”

There can be a whistling-past-the-graveyard feel to these arguments. The pile of scandals was already growing, and Trump’s early primary polling has only improved in recent months. 

But they reflect these challengers’ collective belief—or hope—that Trump will collapse on his own without them needing to best him or convince voters on the specifics of something like his federal indictment.    

RNC Officials Dish on ‘After-Action Report,’ Upcoming Debates

The Republican National Committee won’t publish its internal after-action report commissioned to determine what went wrong for the GOP last fall, RNC officials tell The Dispatch

Why wouldn’t the RNC share its findings? Many have speculated the committee, committed to neutrality in the 2024 Republican primary, wants to avoid implicating Donald Trump as a reason Republicans fell short of their hoped-for red wave in the midterm elections. True or not, some of the conclusions RNC officials confirm were reached by the after-action report have “Trump” written all over them.

For instance: Candidate quality mattered, and flawed standard-bearers played an outsized role in GOP losses in targeted races up and down the ballot. A focus on past grievances rather than the future was another problem for 2022 Republicans—in key gubernatorial contests, battles for control of state legislatures, and the race for majorities in Congress. Far from stampeding back to a Senate majority, the party lost one Senate seat and barely captured voting control of the House.

Trump’s endorsements were influential in Republican primaries last year, and his handpicked candidates flopped in contested battlegrounds. Independent voters were particularly turned off by the former president’s nonstop claims that his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden was illegitimate. 

“There was a tremendous amount of ticket-splitting,” an RNC official said in an interview. “Republicans who were able to draw in independents and keep the party coalition together won.” 

Last June, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating federal protections for abortion rights. Aside from any possible Trump factors, the RNC’s after-action report, first reported by the Washington Post, also identifies abortion as an issue that sank Republicans in the last election. 

Specifically, the report found Republican candidates who did not take a strong position on abortion rights, and put advertising money behind it, suffered the most. In part, RNC officials blame GOP consultants, saying they counseled candidates to avoid the topic. That, in turn, allowed Democrats to define all Republicans as identical to those Republicans who, for instance, opposed access to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

“That really bled down-ticket and hurt our candidates that did not articulate where they may have differentiated on the issue,” the RNC official said.

Meanwhile, concern at the RNC about the party’s ability to appeal to independents is one reason why the committee is mulling partnering with mainstream news outlets for its upcoming presidential primary debates.

Republican candidates and grassroots conservatives have complained for years that the mainstream media abuses the privilege of hosting GOP debates. The liberal-minded journalists at these organizations, so the thinking goes, deliberately use the events to embarrass the party while ignoring issues important to primary voters. This led the RNC to exert more control over the process of awarding broadcast rights for the 2024 presidential primary debates. Fox News is hosting the first televised Republican debate, scheduled for August 23 in Milwaukee. 

But RNC officials confirmed that mainstream media outlets are being considered as hosts for the second televised debate, to be held sometime in September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Southern California.

“The question we have to answer is: Do we have a debate on one of those networks? And I think that’s what the party has to decide,” the RNC official said, explaining it would depend on the outcome of negotiations with the networks, which include talks regarding who would moderate and whether those moderators are acceptable to the committee. “We have to recognize that there’s no path to the White House without getting independents. So we can’t just be in an echo chamber talking to ourselves.”

Notable and Quotable

“Sure, there’s some legal stuff, but I think for the majority of the day we did some positive things … just in terms of taking up all the oxygen in the environment … We want all the eyeballs.”

—Trump spokesman Steven Cheung about the political optics of Trump’s arraignment to Semafor, Wednesday, June 14

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.