Republican senators are warning that criminal charges hanging over former President Trump will give the GOP a bad look if he is the party’s eventual nominee, especially in a year when Republicans are eager for a chance to retake the Senate.
While GOP senators have accused Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) of waging a politically motivated prosecution of Trump, they acknowledge it nevertheless will hurt their chances in the 2024 election if charges are still hanging over Trump next summer and fall.
Trump’s next in-person court appearance is scheduled for December, which means legal proceedings could stretch well into 2024. He also could face additional charges from the Department of Justice and the Fulton County, Ga., district attorney.
“I think it’s a problem for a party to be considered legitimate by people who care about America to have someone who’s been indicted, who’s had to plead the Fifth multiple times, who’s been surrounded by individuals who’ve gone to jail, one after the other, or been convicted of felonies,” to be its nominee for president, said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who was the GOP’s nominee for president in 2012.
But Romney doesn’t think any of that will stop Trump from winning next year’s presidential primary.
“I don’t think that has any particular impact on the primary process or the likelihood that Donald Trump will be our nominee,” he said. “I don’t think the primary voters look at electability; I think they look for the person they think will pursue what they believe in.”
Last year, criminal cases in Manhattan took an average of more than 900 days to proceed from indictment to a trial verdict, according to data reported by Reuters.
Unless Trump can persuade a judge to dismiss Bragg’s case, he likely will remain under indictment and have a legal cloud over his head during next year’s election.
He also faces a possible indictment from Justice Department special prosecutor Jack Smith — who is investigating Trump’s role in the lead-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as his possession of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago — and from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D), who is investigating allegations that Trump interfered in Georgia’s 2020 election.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) suggested Trump’s growing legal problems could take a toll on his viability as a candidate.
“Some of these things will drag out for some period of time, so I’m guessing a lot of it will be unresolved” by next year’s presidential election, he said.
“But I don’t think it’s going to deter him from running,” he added. “It’s probably not going to deter people from endorsing him.”
So far, nine Senate Republicans have endorsed Trump — Sens. Tommy Tuberville (Ala.), J.D. Vance (Ohio), Eric Schmitt (Mo.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.), Markwayne Mullin (Okla.), Ted Budd (N.C.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Bill Hagerty (Tenn.).
Asked about Trump’s support from fellow Republican senators despite his legal baggage, Thune said Trump “will probably be a force in the nominating process so members, I think, are probably looking at their states, their constituencies and the politics around the former president and what makes the best sense for them.”
Thune said many Republicans view Bragg’s prosecution as “very politically motivated,” but he warned “all this stuff,” referring to the legal battles, will likely have “a cumulative effect to it.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership, told The Hill it “would be better” not to have a nominee for president who is under indictment.
He was spotted stopping by a get-to-know-you event for Trump’s possible rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), in Washington on Tuesday.
Cornyn said he “went by to pay my respects, shake his hand and wish him well” but doesn’t plan to make any endorsement ahead of next year’s primary. Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R) also attended the event.
Many Senate Republicans think Trump’s repeated yet unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was stolen, which candidates he endorsed in the 2022 midterm election embraced, hurt their chances of winning back the Senate majority.
And they fear Trump’s ongoing legal dramas could hurt their chances in 2024, as well.
“I think there are several individuals who are looking at running for the presidency that could do a good job of uniting our country. I would prefer to look at one of those individuals — I’m looking forward to having one of those other individuals be successful in obtaining the presidency,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said of the Republican candidates who will challenge Trump in the primary.
Asked about what it would mean for the party to have its nominee for president under indictment, Rounds said, “I can’t think of anything positive about having that occur.”
One Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on what Trump’s legal problems mean for Republican candidates in 2024 said if the Republican candidate for president is under indictment, it’s a problem in the general election.
“It’s a bad look,” the lawmaker added.
“An indictment means something; conviction means a lot more. That’s a finding of fact that the law was violated. Someone has been charged; they’re presumed to be innocent, but from a political point of view, you never want your candidates under a cloud of criminal prosecution,” the source said.
Yet Trump maintains a big lead in the polls over DeSantis and other potential rivals among Republicans nationwide.
A Wall Street Journal poll of 600 likely primary voters conducted from April 11 to April 17 found Trump well ahead of the field with 48 percent support compared to DeSantis, who had 24 percent support, in a hypothetical matchup. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley came in a distant third with 5 percent support.
A Wall Street Journal survey conducted in December showed DeSantis beating Trump 52 percent to 38 percent.
Trump leads DeSantis by an average of more than 30 percentage points in polls conducted since the end of March.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted to convict Trump on the impeachment charge of inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, wonders what Trump’s commanding lead in the polls says about the direction of the party and country more broadly.
“How can this be? What country are we in?” she asked with a laugh.
“Is it a bad look for the country to have an individual that is viewed not only as a viable candidate but the frontrunner who’s under indictment?” she asked. “I don’t know. I stopped trying to figure out Donald Trump a long time ago.”