WASHINGTON — Donald Trump had one job: “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States.”
With those words — along with the conditional promise to protect the Constitution “to the best of my ability” — a president’s oath creates a pretty low bar for putting a good-faith effort into leading the country in accordance with its laws.
But once he became a lame duck — a defeated president serving out his remaining days before handing over the keys to the White House — Trump did the exact opposite, prosecutors wrote in a four-count indictment Tuesday.
Now, Trump’s Republican rivals are using the moment to divulge more than ever their views on the powers of the presidency and the courts. And they are demonstrating in vivid fashion that there is an inverse relationship between their willingness to consider the possibility that the prosecution is legitimate and their viability in the GOP primary.
To a Republican base that insists the last presidential election was rigged — and increasingly that such is the case with any Democratic win at any level of politics — the leaders in the field are sending a pretty clear message: Trump’s actions were more just than those of the justice system.
The sentiment will only embolden the segment of the party that believes Republicans should fight until long after the last vote is counted.
That makes it more likely Jan. 6 was an early chapter in a bigger story, not a conclusion.
“Each of these conspiracies — which built on the widespread mistrust the Defendant was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud — targeted a bedrock function of the United States federal government: the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election,” prosecutors wrote in the indictment released Tuesday.
Trump’s biggest rival for the GOP nomination focused more on the setting of the case on Tuesday than on the conduct the special counsel’s office described.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former military prosecutor who acknowledged he hadn’t read the indictment, wrote on social media that it is “unfair” for Trump to “have to stand trial before a jury that is reflective of the swamp mentality.”
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution requires juries to be selected in the federal jurisdiction where a crime was allegedly committed. Article III of the Constitution governs the venues of actual trials.
As a candidate commenting on a criminal indictment, the Harvard-law educated DeSantis further wrote that the nation is “in decline” in part because of “the politicization of the rule of law.” He promised to end “the weaponization of government.”
In an interview with NBC News’ Gabe Gutierrez last week, DeSantis was asked whether Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 disqualify him for another term as president. DeSantis dodged.
“So here’s what I think we need to do,” DeSantis said. “We need to focus the election on [President] Joe Biden’s failures and our positive vision for the future. If we’re litigating things from four or five years ago, Republicans are going to lose.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, a Yale Law School graduate who is polling third in some national surveys, called the indictment “persecution by prosecution” and concluded, without having seen any evidence, that Trump “did not” commit any crime.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who is getting a closer look from some in the GOP’s donor class, avoided the construction that Trump is innocent. Rather, he accused the Justice Department of ignoring allegations against the president’s son Hunter Biden, while focusing on Trump.
“We’re watching Biden’s DOJ continue to hunt Republicans, while protecting Democrats,” Scott said.
There were, of course, a handful of GOP candidates who chose not to attack prosecutors or defend Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” said former Vice President Mike Pence, who fled for his life during the Capitol riot. “I will have more to say about the government’s case after reviewing the indictment. The former president is entitled to the presumption of innocence but with this indictment, his candidacy means more talk about Jan. 6 and more distractions.”
Yet Pence is in danger of failing to meet the threshold of 40,000 donors to qualify for the first Republican presidential debate this month — an outcome that would be a stunning rebuke for someone elected on Trump’s ticket and a cautionary tale for any GOP candidate who might consider criticizing the former president.
Former Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, reiterated his view that Trump’s entire candidacy is “an attempt to stay out of prison” and get his followers to pay his legal bills.
“The 2020 election wasn’t stolen, rigged, or fraudulent,” Hurd said. “It was lost by Donald Trump because he was incapable of uniting the country. Now, we’ve got to ask ourselves if we really want a president who’s willing to violate his oath to the Constitution just to cling to power?”
So far, the answer for a majority of Republican voters is yes.