The expected arrest of Donald Trump is putting Republican senators who want to move on from the former president in a tough spot as he calls for mass protests if Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg places him in custody.
GOP lawmakers see the indictment of a former president by a local district attorney as crossing the line and setting a bad precedent, but they fear a repeat of the violence that broke out when Trump encouraged his supporters to protest Congress’s certification of the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021.
Adding to their discomfort is the nature of the allegations that Trump paid $130,000 in hush money to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, something his onetime fixer, Michael Cohen, testified about before Congress in 2019.
The top members of Senate Republican leadership have stayed silent on the prospect of Trump being arrested and on Trump’s calls for mass protests, which Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tried to discourage over the weekend.
There’s also a concern among Republicans that arresting Trump could supercharge his support among GOP voters and vault him to victory in next year’s presidential primary.
“If you want to talk about how to unify Republicans behind Donald Trump in the primary, having an unhinged left-wing prosecution, complete with perhaps a perp walk for the cameras, that ends up being thrown out and ends in failure could be the single biggest in-kind gift to the Donald Trump campaign of this entire cycle,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on his podcast Monday.
Cruz hasn’t yet made an endorsement in the primary.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Trump’s closest ally in the Senate, said Bragg, the Manhattan prosecutor, “has done more to help Donald Trump get elected president than any single person in America today.”
“I think this is an effort that’s ongoing, never ending to destroy Donald Trump, everything around Donald Trump,” he said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) framed Trump’s expected arrest as part of a broader effort by Democrats to weaponize law enforcement agencies against their opponents.
“Now they want to arrest Trump, their leading political opponent. They are the banana republic party,” he tweeted over the weekend.
But GOP strategists and aides say the complicated political dynamics put Republican lawmakers in a tough situation.
“My view is that Trump is a despicable individual who has done fundamental damage to our party and has harmed our country but what is going on in New York seems to be a classic example of prosecutorial abuse,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a onetime adviser to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) leadership team.
McConnell has been absent from the Senate for more than a week after suffering a concussion during a fall at an event away from the Capitol.
“You just don’t indict a former president on some issue involving campaign finance of seven years ago unless it’s really, really serious and an open-and-shut case,” Gregg said.
But Gregg also criticized Trump’s call for mass protests as “inexcusable.”
“It reflects the type of person he is and why we had Jan. 6 but hopefully people ignore it,” he said.
McCarthy, who has been criticized for not holding Trump accountable for the violence on Jan. 6, on Sunday tried to tamp down Trump’s calls for mass protests if he is arrested.
“I don’t think people should protest this, no,” he said.
Vin Weber, a GOP strategist and former member of the House Republican leadership, said Republican lawmakers “should condemn the precedent of arresting and indicting a former president. Period, full stop.”
“If we let the genie out of the bottle, we can expect that it’ll happen again to other people and all of the sudden America doesn’t look like America anymore. We look like those countries where you would use the judicial system to go after your political opponents,” he said.
Trump’s biggest rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), at first stayed quiet about the former president’s possible indictment.
He finally broke his silence on Monday by offering a half-hearted defense.
“I’ve seen rumors swirl. I have not seen any facts yet, and so I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “But I do know this: The Manhattan district attorney is a Soros-funded prosecutor and so he, like other Soros-funded prosecutors, they weaponize their office to impose a political agenda on society at the expense of the rule of law and public safety.”
George Soros is a prominent Democratic donor who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Color of Change PAC, which supported Bragg’s election. He’s also a frequent target of the GOP and conspiracy theories.
DeSantis also took a veiled shot at his rival by quipping he didn’t “know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”
In a sign of how statements about Trump are already playing out in real time in the emerging GOP presidential primary race, Donald Trump Jr. blasted DeSantis’s response as “pure weakness.”
“So DeSantis thinks that Dems weaponizing the law to indict President Trump is a ‘manufactured circus’ & isn’t a ‘real issue’ Pure weakness. Now we know why he was silent all weekend. He’s totally owned by Karl Rove, Paul Ryan & his billionaire donors. 100% Controlled Opposition,” he tweeted.
A Senate Republican aide said GOP senators who aren’t Trump fans will straddle the line like DeSantis by condemning the Manhattan district attorney for dredging up an old allegation while staying away from defending Trump.
“DeSantis’s statement was pretty creative, it checked both boxes, acknowledging the absurdity of paying off a porn star and all that and highlighting how this is a Soros-backed district attorney. That may be the way forward for people,” the aide said.
Weber, the GOP strategist, said Trump’s alleged conduct “has to appall” leading Republicans such as DeSantis and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney (R) but that’s why they should focus on “the precedent of indicting a former president on the face of it is a bad idea.”
Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide, acknowledged that prominent Republicans don’t want to go too far in defending Trump.
“You’re seeing that now with Ron DeSantis’s comments, a backhanded defense. You’ll see a lot of back-handed defenses going forward. I think that DeSantis probably gave cover to a lot of Republicans to give backhanded defenses,” he said.
“But the bottom line is I think that Republicans understand that voters are going to look at this as overreach and the weaponization of the D.A.’s office,” he added.