GOP dances around Trump's indictment

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Former President Donald Trump's conservative defenders in Congress were not exactly front and center on Sunday, as rank-and-file Republicans tap-danced around his looming arraignment and gently distanced themselves from Trump’s Ukraine and entitlement policies.

Instead several Republicans found themselves harmonizing with Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who appeared on three Sunday shows to say Trump shouldn’t be immune from legal scrutiny but also warn against a politically motivated prosecution as New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg prepares to unveil his Trump indictment on Tuesday. Manchin’s Sunday mantra that “no one is above the law but nobody should be targeted by the law” was music to the ears of Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio).

“I really liked what the senator was just saying in that, you know, our laws should not be bent to target someone,” Turner said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The senator was saying that, you know, when this comes out, and we finally get to see what's happening, if this is politically motivated this will be a shame on our criminal justice system.”

Turner, the House Intelligence chair, also gently broke from Trump’s assertions that Russia will eventually take all of Ukraine: “It’s certainly not inevitable … there’s a number of people I think that should just stop the speculation.” He did not call Trump out by name, though. He also lamented that “it’s one thing when you have a cancel culture, it’s another one when you have a cancel criminal justice system.”

The coming indictment marks only the beginning of what will be a huge debate within the GOP on whether Trump should be nominated for a third consecutive presidential election. He’s facing other legal woes beyond the hush money case, and each controversy stands to test his support among elected Republicans desperate to retake the White House. At the moment, many conservatives are not officially supporting his bid.

And now nearly eight years since Trump entered the political ring, it remains truer than ever that many Republicans loathe discussing Trump’s endless penchant for controversy. Even Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who took a massive political risk in voting to convict Trump in his impeachment trial in 2021, is uninterested in rehashing his opinion on Trump.

As Trump will likely face charges over his handling of hush money payments to an adult film star, Cassidy repeated the same phrase as Manchin nearly word-for-word: “No one should be above the law, but no one should be a target of the law.”

“The particular problem is that it’s going to lead to all kinds of political theater, theater that is going to distract from the issues,” Cassidy said on “Fox News Sunday.” After raising fears that Social Security benefits will be cut without action, he lamented of both President Joe Biden and Trump: “Neither of the two leading candidates will take the issue on. That's frustrating.”

Trumpian conservatives don't generally flock to TV news networks each weekend, and often take their pugnacious defensive style to right-leaning networks. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said on Fox News’s "Sunday Morning Futures" that some Republicans would consider retribution through the spending process over what he sees as the targeting of Trump by the federal government.

“We control the power of the purse, and we're going to look at the appropriations process and limit funds going to some of these agencies, particularly the ones engaged in the most egregious behavior,” Jordan said. He called the Bragg case “ridiculous.”

That some of the most animated support of Trump on Sunday came from his own defense team highlights the fractional support the president still has in both chambers of Congress. And even his lawyers couldn’t fully defend Trump, who has attacked New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan as someone who “hates me.”

Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina said on CNN that while Trump certainly had a right to take issue with any aspect of the case, he personally has “no issue with this judge whatsoever.”

If there was a memorable moment over the weekend within the GOP, it may be former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson's announcement of a 2024 president campaign. He immediately called on Trump to drop out of the race amid the indictment, a call even Trump’s latest campaign rival admitted would be summarily ignored.

“The office is more important than any individual person. For the sake of the office of the presidency, I do think that is too much of a side show,” Hutchinson said on ABC’s “This Week.” He added: “At the same time, we know he's not” going to drop out.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has flirted with another presidential bid, questioned on ABC whether Trump’s prosecution is “really about increasing the public safety of the people of Manhattan” but also said an indictment can’t be good news for Trump: “All this bravado from the Trump camp is baloney.”

The comment illustrated Republicans’ quandary: Criticizing Trump too directly over the matter could lose conservative support, even if on its face an indictment clearly hurts the former president’s general election prospects.

Marc Short, a former chief of staff for former Vice President Mike Pence, did not take Hutchinson’s tack either and said on Fox “it’s right for Republicans to denounce” the indictment.

So even as they very much don’t defend Trump on the particulars of the case over a payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign, some Republicans are doing their best to channel their inner Manchin — with a twist.

“People need to ask themselves a fundamental question. If this were anyone but Trump, would this DA even take up this case?” asked Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) on CNN’s “State of the Union. He added that former presidents “should definitely not be immune from criminal charges. It’s just that this one is as weak as it can get.”