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How the 2024 Republicans boxed themselves in on Trump and Jan. 6

Analysis: Trump's rivals have largely shied away from criticizing his legal troubles — a strategy that has only strengthened the former president's bond with GOP voters.
Donald Trump at the Moms for Liberty Summit in Philadelphia.
Former President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he was notified that he is a target of a federal investigation examining efforts to overturn the 2020 election.Hannah Beier / The Washington Post via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, both Ivy League-educated lawyers, edged ever so slightly Tuesday toward condemning former President Donald Trump's conduct on Jan. 6 — then quickly concluded, without seeing the evidence, that any charges against him are trumped up.

Ramaswamy called Trump's actions that day an example of "bad judgment" after the former president revealed that special counsel Jack Smith's team had informed him that he is a "target" of their Jan. 6 criminal investigation.

DeSantis said Trump should have moved "more forcefully" to stop the insurrection, but argued that to "try to criminalize that" was a mistake.

Like most of the candidates running against Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, DeSantis and Ramaswamy played to the party's base — and aided Trump — by portraying the pending prosecution as a perversion of justice. The candidates who didn't do that, Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson — both former U.S. attorneys and governors — have long since made clear their view that Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election should disqualify him from returning to the White House.

So, as the chances of Trump being indicted for a third time this year grew to nearly 100 percent, there was no discernible movement within the former president's party against him.

“This could be different,” said Terry Sullivan, who served as campaign manager for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 GOP presidential bid. “Now that being said, Mission Impossible 9 could be different than the first eight Mission Impossibles, but it’s unlikely. It’s likely to end the same way the first eight did.”

There's a pretty simple reason for that: The candidates already had boxed themselves in on Trump, Jan. 6 and the criminal charges against him.

His top rivals didn't publicly blast him in the two years between his departure from the Oval Office and the launch of his 2024 campaign.

They didn't do it — at least not in any real or sustained way — when he was indicted in Manhattan in March on charges related to hush money payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels.

And they didn't do it last month when he was indicted in a federal court in Miami in a case surrounding the classified documents that he took with him from the White House.

Some party-base Republicans thought DeSantis waited too long to defend Trump after the first indictment. Others howled when he took a swipe at Trump while criticizing the prosecution.

The lesson to GOP candidates was clear: Hit Trump on his legal troubles at your own peril. So, most of them haven't. Often, they echo his talking points, reinforcing Trump's political martyr narrative to voters and strengthening his bond with them.

That won't change unless there's a massive shift in opinion among Republican primary voters, and Trump's most prominent rivals are in no position to try to lead such a movement because they already have weighed in on the indictments and Jan. 6.

There is another world, according to some Republican strategists, in which a prominent conservative candidate — probably DeSantis because he has long been seen as the top contender to take on Trump — had taken the risk of condemning Trump from the outset.

"There is a way of being critical of the FBI, the DOJ and the Biden administration, and being critical of Donald Trump's actions around Jan. 6," said one veteran GOP presidential campaign strategist who is not aligned with a candidate in this election.

"A candidate that didn't run a full campaign on that, but was sure to be firm and focused that Jan. 6 hurts Donald Trump in the general election ... would have received benefit from cycles and cycles of news coverage," the strategist said.

For now, Trump stands alone at the top of the heap of Republican candidates in far stronger position that he was when the first indictment was handed up in Manhattan a little more than three months ago.

To the extent that his legal problems might make Trump a weaker general election foe against President Joe Biden in November 2024, they have more decidedly helped him among primary voters so far.

Some Republicans think that can change.

"I’m one that thinks that these [indictments] eventually add up," said a Republican operative who is not working on any of the presidential campaigns. "Which one? I don’t know. When? I don’t know.”