WASHINGTON — Most of the 18 House Republicans who represent districts that voted for President Joe Biden don’t want to talk about the elephant in the room: Donald Trump, the former president and front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination, and his federal indictment over mishandled classified information.
Those Republicans are walking a tightrope as they seek re-election in challenging territory. For their primaries, they'll need the backing of loyal GOP voters, who are solidly in Trump’s corner and have largely embraced his unsubstantiated claims of a federal plot to take him down. But they risk losing in the general election if they turn off independents and swing voters, who are skeptical of Trump and tend to be decisive in their districts.
“They recognize this Trump indictment is extraordinarily problematic,” said Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from a swing district in Pennsylvania who retired after 2018.
“Many know that if they say too much about Trump being a scoundrel or being a huge liability, that will alienate a not-insignificant portion of their base,” he said. “So that’s why they’re dancing around this issue. This is really hard for them politically to navigate.”
As Trump surrendered to federal authorities Tuesday afternoon and pleaded not guilty in Miami, just one of the 18 GOP lawmakers in Biden-won districts had criticized Trump over the allegations against him.
“It’s obvious what the president did was wrong,” said Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, who was elected in 2016 and represents an Omaha-based district that is closely divided. “To have thousands of secrets in your house, showing them to people that were not read in and then not giving all of it back, saying you gave it all back and then lying about it, I just — there’s no way to defend that. And I just think the emperor has no clothes.”
The 17 other Republicans in districts like Bacon's have taken a different approach — most are still working to cultivate their own brands, having been elected last year under new congressional maps. Trump looms over their bids for re-election as they could find themselves running on the same ballot with him next year, their political fates tied together.
Some GOP lawmakers have publicly ignored the indictment entirely, including Reps. Marc Molinaro and Mike Lawler of New York. (Their offices didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Others, like Rep. Anthony D’Esposito of New York, have pivoted to policy issues when asked about Trump's latest legal woes. And yet others have cast the indictment as a political attack on Trump, as in the case of Rep. Nick LaLota of New York, who tweeted that it “wreaks political retaliation.”
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., issued a general statement about the need for justice to play out without weighing in on the allegations and noted that Biden also faces a special counsel probe about his handling of classified material.
“As both legal processes run their course, it is my hope that political and community leaders in our nation lower the temperature of the rhetoric, refrain from intentionally inflaming societal divisions, and remain committed to preserving trust in the core values of our shared American justice system,” said Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent.
Most other House Republicans, who sit in safe red districts where their only realistic chances of defeat come in GOP primaries, are rallying around Trump — including Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California. But the members in swing districts are on the front lines of the battle for control of the narrowly divided House, with Democrats targeting them for defeat next year.
A GOP strategist working on 2024 House races said it’s too soon to gauge the political impact of the indictment. “Right now,” the strategist said, Republicans in pro-Biden districts are “handling as they should — most aren’t saying much” — while those speaking out “are focused on the weaponization” argument.
Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., referred to the Trump indictment as a “continuation of, really, eight years of bad behavior from the far left,” arguing that it has been going after Trump since his 2016 campaign.
“They’re willing to use the executive branch this time, the DOJ, to go any lengths to remove a political opponent that they know will win the election,” Garcia said Friday in an interview with the radio show "The Morning Answer."
A rare Republican in a Biden-won district who's celebrating Trump after the indictment is Rep. George Santos, the disgraced lawmaker from New York who faces federal charges of his own alleging wire fraud, stealing public funds and money laundering.
“Another indictment of President Donald J. Trump will not gaslight the American People into abandoning the greatest champion of freedom this great young nation has ever known,” Santos tweeted, adding the hashtag “#Trump2024NowMorethanEver.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the GOP’s embrace of Trump post-indictment proves it’s no longer the party of supporting law enforcement.
“Republicans can no longer claim to be the party of public safety with their recent, repeated attacks on the law enforcement agencies that keep our communities safe,” DCCC spokeswoman Courtney Rice said in a statement. “The DCCC will continue holding vulnerable House Republicans accountable for putting fealty to their party and federally-indicted, twice-impeached president over public safety.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which declined to comment on the indictment or discuss its political impact, shot back at the DCCC.
“No Republican will take lectures on law enforcement from the party of defunding the police and releasing criminals to gun down families in the streets,” spokesman Jack Pandol said.
Bacon said it's important for Republicans to speak out about the allegations against Trump and show that their party still supports the "rule of law."
"We can’t walk away from that," he said.