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Could the GOP descend into chaos after the Trump indictment?
Trump has his defenders. But Bill Barr called him "toast." Chris Christie tore him to shreds. Even Nikki Haley has changed her tune. Don't give them too much credit. They're seeing a 2024 wipeout.
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We’ve been here before. Donald Trump says or does something outrageous and even criminal, from putting in place a Muslim ban to inciting an insurrection. And the GOP falls in line.
Sometimes, as with January 6th, they speak out against Trump initially—from Kevin McCarthy to Lindsay Graham—only to completely bow to him once again.
But something about the federal indictment handed down last week by Special Counsel Jack Smith, which uses, in part, the Espionage Act, feels different. Not necessarily because some GOP politicians may finally be following their consciences rather than the base of the party and what the voters they care about think. But precisely because of their fear of voters—in a general election.
Trump’s former attorney general, Bill Barr, his corrupt protector who tried to discredit the Russia investigation and launched investigations against Trump’s perceived enemies, came out forcefully, saying on Fox News that if "even half of this is true," Trump "is toast." Barr has criticized Trump before—even as he trashed the New York indictment from Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg—so it wasn’t totally a shocker. But, aside from Steve Bannon and the MAGA extremists, Barr wasn’t attacked by GOP elected officials, many of whom have remained silent.
Yes, Jim Jordan and Lindsay Graham were all over TV defending Trump, as were some of the other usual suspects. But many House and Senate Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, have been quiet. Texas Representative Dan Crenshaw called the indictment "problematic" and refused to comment further, certainly not defending Trump. Washington State House member Dan Newhouse told CNN’s Manu Raju that "no one is above the law."
And Chris Christie, now a Republican presidential candidate, ripped Trump apart in a CNN town hall last night:
He flew the boxes up to New Jersey for summer vacation. What is this, like, they're a family member? Seriously, I've got to have my boxes with me. Let me ask you a question. What exactly was he doing with them? Did someone remind him he's not the president anymore?…
…When did we get to the point we're blaming our adversaries for the weakness of our candidates? It's the Democrats' fault, it's the doj's fault, it's the media's fault. How about it's his? He hasn't won a damn thing since 2016. Three-time loser
Christie, a fraud who sucked up to Trump and then became angry because he didn’t get appointed attorney general after Jared Kushner screwed him, is not showing any moral conscience. He’s lashing out at Trump now that he has an opportunity. So it’s not entirely unpredictable.
More of a surprise, though, was Nicki Haley, who has refused to attack Trump—as if she’s not even running against him—now saying "If this indictment is true, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security... This puts all of our military men and women in danger."
As I pointed out over the weekend, the National Review slammed Trump, and even Trump apologist and Fox legal analyst Jonathan Turley called the indictment “damning,” shortly before Barr went on Fox to skewer Trump. But it’s likely that people like Christie, not Barr, could create more of a groundswell against Trump. Barr does a talk show every once in a while. Christie is running for president and will be campaigning nonstop with the same message.
Yes, he, Haley, and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson—also critical of Trump regarding the indictment and calling for him to drop out of the presidential race—are polling in the single digits. But they’re getting lots of media coverage, providing a space for those in the base who might believe what Trump did is criminal—and/or dangerous for the GOP’s 2024 chances. The key thing that Christie actually said is that Trump is a "loser" who hasn’t won anything since 2016. And the key thing that Haley said was, "My concern is the election—we cannot have Biden win this election."
If that appeals to GOP-leaning independents and even just a few in the GOP base, it could make a difference and give more elected officials some spine. The GOP has seen Trump wreak havoc for them in 2020 and 2022. Now, with a 38-count indictment, he’s set to do even worse in 2024 if he gets the GOP nomination. Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, looking at Jordan’s defenses and at others in the GOP staying quiet, predicts a coming split in the GOP, particularly when it comes to efforts to try to sabotage Jack Smith’s investigation:
Presumably, the House will come under pressure to hold Garland in contempt. But would that pass? Does House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) really want Republicans representing districts that President Biden carried in 2020 to vote for such a naked effort to derail an apparently damning prosecution? Moderate Senate Republicans have been muted, a possible sign of where their House counterparts will land.
Again, in the past, we’ve seen early criticisms of Trump by some in the GOP—or silence—only to see everyone get behind him, riven with fear. And that may happen again. I’m certainly not holding my breath. But with 2024 in sight, some in the GOP may realize they have no choice but to break with Trump if they want to win.
Yet the fact that the criticism will be far from universal points to the GOP falling in disarray and chaos. The contours of the infighting are coming into view. Rather than being unified either for or against Trump, they could be at each other's throats, completely divided. And that only helps President Biden and the Democrats.