Trump has to weather new legal storm. Rivals turn critical, supporters rally behind him

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Donald Trump has long been impervious to scandal and criticism among Republican voters.

That much was evident as hundreds of his most ardent supporters — wielding Trump-branded signs and wearing MAGA hats — gathered outside a Miami federal courthouse on Tuesday as the former president surrendered to face a 37-count indictment in a classified documents case.

But his Republican rivals and some leading conservative figures appear to be making a bet that a chunk of the party’s base is ready to hear criticism against him.

As Trump emerged from his arraignment, he faced a field of Republican opponents who have begun making their first real — if still equivocal — criticisms of him, raising the possibility that he committed serious wrongdoing that would jeopardize his ability to be president.

It amounts to a starkly different reaction than the one that met Trump after he was charged by a Manhattan grand jury in March, when Republicans uniformly rushed to his defense to call his prosecution politically motivated.

“If this indictment is true, if what it says is actually the case, President Trump was entirely reckless with our national security,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said during a Fox News interview Monday.

Haley, a Republican presidential candidate, added that the documents could have put “all our military men and women in danger.”

The same day, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, another of Trump’s rivals, said during a campaign stop in his home state that the allegations against Trump were a “serious case with serious allegations,” according to The Post and Courier of Charleston.

Meanwhile, Trump’s former attorney general, Bill Barr, called the indictment “very, very damning” if “even half of it is true.” And conservative legal analyst Johnathan Turley, a frequent Fox News guest, has said that charges are “extremely damning.”

Trump’s resilience in face of legal woes

Recent history is replete with examples of Trump facing scandals predicted to doom his political future only to emerge with even more support from his electoral base of conservatives and MAGA loyalists. But some Republicans began suggesting Tuesday, at least tentatively, that the challenge he faces now is more serious than past charges against him, representing the biggest political test he’s faced yet in his post-presidential tenure.

“These charges are far more serious and potentially damaging to the former president than anything up until this point,” said Stephen Lawson, a GOP political strategist who is neutral in the 2024 primary. “When you’re talking about openly sharing highly sensitive and classified documents with essentially random people, that’s extremely serious.”

Trump is the clear-cut front-runner in the 2024 GOP primary, leading his next closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by more than 20 points in most national surveys. His support swelled after the first round of charges were brought against him in March, related to alleged hush-money payments he sent an adult film actress.

The 37 federal charges set forth in Miami, in contrast, accuse him of keeping at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach government documents containing highly sensitive defense, weapons and nuclear information and of obstructing efforts to reclaim them.

Alina Habba, Trump spokesperson, told reporters outside the courthouse that the decision to pursue charges against Trump, while “turning a blind eye against others,” is the type of thing you see in dictatorships like Cuba and Venezuela.

“It is commonplace there for rival candidates to be prosecuted, persecuted and put into jail,” Habba said. “What is being done to President Trump should terrify all citizens of this country. These are not the ideals that our democracy was founded upon. This is not our America.”

Rubio: Indictment ‘far outweighs damage”

Many Republicans rushed to Trump’s defense Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio posted on Twitter that the indictment “far outweighs the damage [if any] from what they allege in the indictment.” In a Fox News interview, Rubio said the criminal case against Trump will set a precedent for future Republican presidents to go after Democrats, including President Joe Biden and his family.

“The pressure is going to be extraordinary,” Rubio said.

Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator, argued the criminal case will fuel more distrust in the country’s justice system.

“The only way that you actually restore the credibility of the justice system is to have Republicans prosecute Republicans and Democrats prosecute Democrats,” Shapiro said. “The only way to restore the credibility of the institution is even-handed application of justice against your own side, not when it looks politically valuable to go after your chief political opposition.”

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott held a press conference in Doral on Monday, accompanied by exiles from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, to claim without evidence that Biden is behind the Department of Justice’s indictment so he could target Trump, his “No. 1 opponent.”

“This is what dictators do, this is what despots do,” Scott said. He told reporters that he had read the indictment against Trump, but he said, “this is not about that.”

“This is about equal protection under the law and equal justice under the law,” he said.

Some rivals rise to defend Trump

Some of Trump’s rivals on the campaign trail also spoke out strongly in his defense.

Wearing a white cap with the word “Truth” on it, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, speaking from Miami, pledged to pardon Trump for his offenses if elected president and called on other Republican candidates to do the same.

“It would be a lot easier for me as a Republican candidate in this race if Donald Trump was not in it. But I don’t want to win this election, unlike other candidates, by eliminating my competition by federal police arresting one of my opponents,” he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, kept a low profile. The GOP presidential candidate did not make any public statements — including about the type of security the state would offer to the city of Miami — related to Trump’s court appearance and allegations.

He made a judicial appointment, according to his office. On social media, his campaign also did not make mention of Trump’s case.

It did, however, underscore DeSantis’ plans to end what he called the “weaponization” of the federal justice system.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez arrives and makes his way through crowds to enter Miami federal courthouse for the arraignment of former President Donald Trump.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez arrives and makes his way through crowds to enter Miami federal courthouse for the arraignment of former President Donald Trump.

Closer to home, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is expected to announce a bid for the Republican nomination in the coming days, said his job as mayor Tuesday was not to take a political position but rather, to help ensure a safe environment for everyone to express their opinions.

Still, the mayor echoed many Trump supporters and he mentioned a perception that the law is not being applied equally to both sides of the political spectrum.

“There’s an erosion of our institutions,” Suarez said. “And I think that’s something that worries me. It worries me as a Republican and it worries me as an American. We have to get back to a positive conversation.”

Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.