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2024 GOP presidential field so far largely avoids attacking Trump over indictment

2024 candidates respond to Trump indictment
2024 GOP candidates respond to Trump indictment 05:54

"Weaponization of federal law enforcement." "What we see is a justice system where the scales are weighted." "Deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward."

Former President Donald Trump's rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination walked a fine line between backing him and alienating his supporters in the hours after Trump announced he had been indicted on charges stemming from the federal investigation into his handling of sensitive government documents after he left the White House.

Before the 37-count indictment was unsealed Friday, the candidates were quick to go after the Justice Department rather than the former president. Trump is the first former president to be charged by the Justice Department, although the charges come just weeks after he was charged with 34 felony counts by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Trump pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Trump can still run for president despite having been charged. As special counsel Jack Smith noted on Friday, defendants in America are "presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in court of law."

Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen as Trump's greatest challenger, did not comment directly on the charges. Instead, DeSantis, who on a fundraising swing through Texas on Thursday, tweeted the "weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society."

He claimed a DeSantis administration would "bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all."

Tim Scott

Shortly after the news broke, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina also slammed what he called the weaponization of the Justice Department against the former president in an interview on Fox News. 

"The one thing that makes America the city on the hill is confidence in our justice system. And today what we see is a justice system where the scales are weighted," Scott said. He went on to claim he would "purge all of the injustices and impurities in our system" but did not address specifics of the possible allegations against the former president. 

Mike Pence

During a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Friday, former Vice President Mike Pence, who has been a critic of his former boss on the campaign trail since kicking off his own bid for the White House on Wednesday, said it was a sad day in America. He called the indictment unprecedented and blasted the politicization of the Justice Department, vowing to "clean house" at the highest levels of the department if elected. 

"I had hoped the Department of Justice would see its way clear to resolve these issues with the former president without moving forward with charges, and I'm deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward," Pence said.

He said Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Before the indictment was unsealed, Pence called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to unseal it, accusing him of hiding behind the special counsel and claiming Americans deserve to know the basis of it. On Friday afternoon, he did not answer a question about the unsealed indictment. The former vice president was recently cleared of wrongdoing regarding classified documents that were found in his own home after he left office. 

Nikki Haley 

Nikki Haley, who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump, tweeted that indicting a former president is "not how justice should be pursued in our country." The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards, and vendetta politics" and it's time to move beyond drama and distractions, she wrote.

Vivek Ramaswamy

In a statement, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy slammed "two tiers of justice," called the indictment an "affront to every citizen" and said it was hypocritical for the Justice Department to prosecute Trump but not President Joe Biden. 

"It would be much easier for me to win this election if Trump weren't in the race, but I stand for principles over politics. I commit to pardon Trump promptly on January 20, 2025 and to restore the rule of law in our country," Ramaswamy said.

Chris Christie 

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, took a more measured approach Thursday night about waiting to see what the facts are when the possible indictment is released.

"As I have said before, no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were. We will have more to say when the facts are revealed," he tweeted.

On Tuesday, Christie was asked by a voter in New Hampshire whether he would pardon the former president if elected. He said if he believes someone has gotten a full and fair trial in front of a jury of their peers, he can't imagine pardoning them. Christie has been a vocal Trump critic since he entered the race earlier this week

Asa Hutchinson

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only 2024 GOP hopeful who called on Trump to end his campaign for president, Hutchinson said the ongoing criminal proceedings would be a major distraction. 

"With the news that Donald Trump has been indicted for the second time, our country finds itself in a position that weakens our democracy. Donald Trump's actions — from his willful disregard for the Constitution to his disrespect for the rule of law — should not define our nation or the Republican Party. This is a sad day for our country," Hutchinson said. 

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