WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination jumped to his defense Thursday after he was indicted by a grand jury in Manhattan, a sign of the former president’s continued power within the party.
Many of his declared or potential rivals were quick to assert that the potential prosecution was merely about politics rather than the possibility that Trump may have committed a crime.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called it “un-American” and a “weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda.”
“The Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney has consistently bent the law to downgrade felonies and to excuse criminal misconduct. Yet, now he is stretching the law to target a political opponent,” DeSantis said in a statement on Twitter.
He vowed that Florida “will not assist in an extradition request” in what he called “questionable circumstances at issue.”
DeSantis isn’t yet a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but he is widely seen as the likeliest alternative to Trump, and as a result, he has been the target of relentless attacks from Trump for months.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who became the first major candidate to launch a challenge to Trump in 2024, posted a video of herself before the indictment was made public criticizing New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
“This is more about revenge than it is about justice,” Haley, who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, tweeted Thursday.
Former Vice President Mike Pence said on CNN that the indictment was just “one more example of the criminalization of politics in this country."
“I think the unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” Pence said Thursday evening. “And it appears for millions of Americans to be nothing more than a political prosecution.”
He said it was “a great disservice to the country.”
Pence, whom Trump aggressively criticized for refusing to overturn his election defeat and subjected him to “hang Mike Pence!” chants by Trump backers on Jan. 6, 2021, is considering a 2024 run. He said the indictment would have "no bearing" on his decision.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who is taking steps toward a presidential campaign, criticized Bragg as a “pro-criminal New York DA” who has “weaponized the law against political enemies.”
“This is a travesty and it should not be happening in the greatest country on Earth. The presumption of innocence is central to our legal system, yet is selectively discarded by those on the far left today,” he said in a statement. “As I travel the country, I hear from families starving for truth. They’re starving for hope. They want the rules to apply to everyone.”
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, whom some have encouraged to run for president, said the indictment was “manufactured” and motivated by “pure political gain.”
The rush to defend Trump could enhance his political power within the GOP, at least in the short term, as he leads most polls for the nomination.
A Republican strategist supportive of Trump said bluntly: “This is political gold for Trump. The message is easy: If Trump isn’t the nominee, then the election interference worked, and the corrupt prosecutors win.”
On Fox News, conservative commentators also speculated that Trump would benefit with his political base.
Former prosecutor Francey Hakes quoted Obi-Wan Kenobi from "Star Wars" saying: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” She said that when it comes to Trump and his movement, getting indicted will mean they “become more powerful than they can imagine.”
But top Democrats and conservative Trump critics countered that nobody is above the law and that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions.
Former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a member of the Jan. 6 committee, said Thursday on CNN that his former GOP colleagues should “take a deep breath” and wait to read the charges and evidence before assuming Trump didn’t commit a crime.
He said the “premeditated" decision to go after Bragg “without having any clue what’s in” the indictment represents “cowardice” or political aims on the part of Republicans defending Trump.
Asa Hutchinson, a former governor of Arkansas who is weighing a presidential run, took a more measured approach and urged people not to jump to conclusions.
“We need to wait on the facts and for our American system of justice to work like it does for thousands of Americans every day,” he said, adding that Trump “should not be the next president.” But, he added, “that should be decided by the voters.”