It's Time for GOP Candidates to Pile On Trump
To run against Trump, you have to run *against* Trump. Otherwise, you're just running to lose to him.
The New York Times reports that Republican presidential candidates are distressed about Donald Trump’s indictment on federal charges, because they think it will make it harder for them to beat him for the presidential nomination:
In previous eras, the indictment of a presidential candidate would have been, at a minimum, a political gift for the other candidates, if not an event that spelled the end of the indicted rival’s run. Competitors would have thrilled at the prospect of the front-runner’s spending months tied up in court, with damaging new details steadily dripping out. And they still could be Mr. Trump’s undoing: If he does not end up convicted before November 2024, his latest arrest is not likely win him converts in the general election.
But Mr. Trump’s competitors — counterintuitively, according to the old conventional political wisdom — are actually dreading what threatens to be an endless indictment news cycle that could swallow up the summer. His rivals are desperate to get media coverage for their campaigns, but since the indictment became public last Thursday, as several advisers grumbled, the only way they can get their candidates booked on television is for them to answer questions about Mr. Trump.
These candidates are confused about the source of their problems.
Their main political problem is that Trump is far ahead of them in the polls. Republican voters like him a great deal and are eager to make him president again. Most Republican primary voters don’t care if Trump commits crimes, such is their loyalty to him. When your opponent is so popular the voters don’t care if he gets indicted, your problem isn’t the indictment. It’s his popularity.
As for their frustrations about media attention, it’s always harder to get media attention when you’re not the frontrunner. Plus, Trump is interesting and media-savvy. His opponents are boring, and they want to be allowed to run boring campaigns. Do these people really believe that, if only Trump weren’t being indicted, they’d be getting invites on television to talk about “re-constitutionalizing the executive branch” or whatever? No, the campaign would still be all about Donald Trump, just like it was in 2016 and 2020. The man sucks up all the oxygen in the room; such is his nature.
The NYT article is one of the best examples I’ve seen recently of non-Trump Republicans being unable to understand what has happened to them. For the third election cycle in a row, their voters are poised to nominate Donald Trump, which is a terrible idea. This must be the fault of Joe Biden and the Democrats! It is such unserious political analysis that it demonstrates why these candidates deserve to lose.
It’s time for these candidates to get a grip on reality.
The Republican nomination campaign cannot — and will not — be about anything but Donald Trump, and the media is not going to invite them on TV to talk about topics other than Donald Trump. So, since they are going to talk about Donald Trump all the time, they had better talk about why he should not be nominated. If they instead talk about how the Justice Department is so unfair, all they’re doing is positioning themselves to be a bit less disliked by Trump’s voters as those voters make Trump the Republican nominee again.
So far, Chris Christie is the only candidate who understands the assignment. When he announced his presidential campaign last week, he ribbed his fellow presidential candidates for their unwillingness to attack the frontrunner:
Now, before tonight, I haven’t heard one candidate for the Republican nomination talk frankly about his record. Not one. They own’t even mention his name — like I said before, it’s Voldemort Time. They won’t mention his name… I watched large portions of the Joni Ernst ‘Roast and Ride’ in Iowa… I watched a little bit of every candidate. Not one of them mentioned his name. They would say cute things like “We need new generational leadership.” Oh, oh, I get it — Trump’s old, you’re younger, so I should vote for you. Or, “We need a leader who looks forward, not backwards.” Ohhhhh, I get it. You’re talking about the way he still thinks the 2020 election was stolen. And you won’t say it wasn’t, but you won’t say it [was]. So you’re gonna keep us all guessing, but you’re better than him.”
Since Christie gave those remarks, Trump got indicted (again). Which — contrary to their operatives’ whining to the NYT — makes the GOP field’s job easier, not harder. That’s because sooner or later, they’re going to have to criticize him, and the indictment offers more material to do so.
The material is pretty good, actually.
They can point out that Trump endangered national security by sloppily leaving classified documents around his semi-public club, bragging about his possession of them, and showing them off to people without security clearances. Would Nikki Haley ever use a war plan for Iran as a prop in a book interview? I don’t think so.
They can say that Trump played into Biden’s hands by lying to his own lawyers and obstructing justice. Trump could have avoided indictment if he had just done what Mike Pence and Joe Biden did when they found classified documents — they gave them back. His fanciest lawyer told him to do that. But Trump didn’t listen — extending a pattern that ran through his whole presidency, where he picked loud and stupid fights that ended up costing Republicans control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. That’s not strength, it’s just stupidity.
In recent days, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley and Mike Pence have all inched in this direction, but I mean it when I say inched. Their messages are muddled and confusing, with way too much echoing of Trump’s talking points about the illegitimacy of federal law enforcement. They need to focus voters on the content of the legal action against Trump.1
Haley said Trump’s alleged handling of classified material was “incredibly reckless” and “frustrating,” but also that the Justice Department and the FBI have “lost all credibility with the American people.”
Pence said: “If these materials had ever inadvertently made their way in the hands of foreign interests, it would jeopardize the security of our country as well as the safety and security of our Armed Forces,” but also that “I've lived through years of politicization at the Department of Justice, and I share the concern of millions of Americans about the way politics has played a hand.”
Scott said, when the indictment was announced, that “today what we see is a justice system where the scales are weighted” and then later added that “this case is a serious case with serious allegations, but in America you are still innocent until proven guilty.”
As Christie has noted, these candidates are playing games: trying to criticize Trump while also echoing his own retorts, so Republican voters won’t be too mad at them if Trump somehow “implodes” (like he was supposed to do in 2016.) And the message is confusing — why would you tell voters that DOJ can’t be trusted and then ask them to take seriously an indictment that came from DOJ? Meanwhile, the implosion thing is cope — unless Trump has a heart attack and dies (possible, but not very likely) he’s going to walk to the nomination, unless his opponents make an affirmative case against nominating him.
Christie understands that if you’re litigating the credibility of the DOJ, you’re losing. “Everyone’s blaming the prosecutors,” he said at his CNN town hall on Monday. “He did it. It’s his conduct.” This approach allows Christie to focus on the meat of the indictment itself, and therefore make a clear argument against nominating Trump.
Here’s what he said Monday when Anderson Cooper asked him what he thought were the worst aspects of Trump’s actions as described in the document:
First, it’s the nature of the documents that he kept. I mean: battle plans against Iran; nuclear secrets; the Presidential Daily Brief, which has the most important intelligence information that anyone in the country can get. These are not his personal documents... These are intelligence documents created by the government of the United States. It’s our property, and the government is supposed to have that stuff, not laying around. That’s one.
Two, to suggest to your lawyers that they should lie in response to a grand jury subpoena… I’ve had a number of people ask me, ‘Why did his lawyer make those voice memos about each meeting?’ I know why he did: because this guy was asking him to lie and break the law, and he wanted a contemporaneous recording of exactly what was happening when it was happening…
The third thing is he is voluntarily putting our country through this. If at any point before the search in August of ‘22, he had just done what anyone, I suspect, in this audience would have done, which is said, ‘Alright, you’re serious? You’re serving a grand jury subpoena? Let me just give the documents back.’ He wouldn’t have been charged. He wouldn’t have been charged with anything even though he had kept them for almost a year and a half…
Christie is making it look easy, because it is easy to make this argument. To be clear: Christie is not going to be the Republican nominee, but in making these clear arguments, he’s playing a useful role for his more conservative and less baggage-laden competitors. But as the NYT story suggests, they don’t understand they actually need to hit the softball Christie’s pitching to them:
Mr. Christie has stepped up to bloody the former president with his attacks, which are unlikely to help Mr. Christie’s standing but may help other Republicans in the race: those who are refraining but “drafting” behind Mr. Christie, as one adviser put it, perhaps wishfully, using a horse-racing term.
The “drafting” metaphor here shows the other candidates are misunderstanding their own race. By definition, you cannot draft off someone who is behind you, and Christie is polling in the low single digits. Christie cannot lead the non-Trump pack, but he can use his outsized media presence to set up the arguments that can form the basis of the pile-on they must execute on Trump if they hope to take him down. But that can only have any chance to work if the other candidates actually pile on.
Ron DeSantis has been even more oblique, couching his comments about the importance of properly handling classified material in the context of criticism of Hillary Clinton. He said on Friday, “When I was in Congress, I remember … Hillary had the e-mails with the classified and my view was, ‘Well, gee, you know, as a naval officer, if I would have taken classified [documents] to my apartment, I would have been court-martialed in a New York minute.’ And yet they seem to not care about that.” He added that there was a “different standard for a Democrat Secretary of State versus a former Republican President.” Again, here he is making Trump’s argument for him. Among other things, this makes DeSantis look weak — how is he supposed to beat Trump’s displays of strength when he’s too afraid even to criticize him directly for stocking his bathroom full of classified material? I don’t agree with Richard Hanania that DeSantis needs to challenge Trump to a literal boxing match — it would come off as a gimmick, and Trump would just laugh the challenge off — but I do agree that DeSantis’ strategy of playing nice with Trump while trying to pander to Ted Cruz’s 2016 voters just makes him look like a supplicant who, unlike Trump, is afraid to tell Republicans things they don’t want to hear.