Some Republicans challenging former President Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination are attacking the front-runner as irresponsible in the wake of his indictment on charges of mishandling classified documents, taking a noticeably less friendly tack than their party counterparts as Trump prepares for his second arraignment in three months on Tuesday.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), neither of whom are running explicitly anti-Trump campaigns, both suggested in interviews Monday that Trump’s behavior ― he’s facing 37 felony charges, outlined in a 49-page federal indictment last week ― threatened national security.
Neither wholly abandoned the GOP line, continuing to suggest the Justice Department unfairly targeted Trump because he is a conservative and a foe of Democratic President Joe Biden. Still, their tentative criticisms of Trump suggest his GOP opponents see a possible angle of attack against the de facto party leader.
The first opinion polls since the indictment, released over the weekend by ABC News and CBS News, found an overwhelming majority of Republicans standing by Trump but also indications that portions of the GOP electorate are not as obsessed with Trump’s personal grievances as the man himself.
Scott told reporters that Trump was facing a “serious case with serious allegations” after an event rolling out endorsements in his home state. Haley, appearing on Fox News, said Trump was “incredibly reckless with our national security” if the allegations contained in the indictment are “true.”
“Two things can be true at the same time. One, the DOJ and FBI have lost all credibility with the American people,” Haley said. “Two, the second thing can also be true: If this indictment is true, if what it says is actually the case, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security.”
(It’s worth noting Haley’s first “true” statement is far from it, according to available surveys: Last year, Gallup found 50% of Americans believe the FBI is doing a “good” or “excellent” job, while 21% said it was doing a “fair” job and 28% said it was doing a “poor” job.)
ABC News’ poll, conducted with Ipsos, found the public was more likely to think the charges in the federal indictment were serious than they were to think the same of the April indictment in Manhattan, on fraud charges related to hush-money payments: 61% of Americans think the new charges are serious, compared with just 52% in April.
Notably, the biggest increase in Americans calling the charges serious comes from the Republican Party: While only 21% of Republicans thought the Manhattan charges were serious, 38% said the same of the federal charges in the classified documents case.
Despite recognizing the severity of the charges, Republicans were no more likely to say Trump should face prosecution than they were in April. Why? Mostly because they are far more likely than other Americans to believe the charges are politically motivated: An 80% majority of Republicans say the charges are politically driven, compared to a 47% plurality of all Americans.(Thirty-seven percent of Americans think the charges aren’t driven by politics, and the rest of the population is unsure.)
The CBS News survey, conducted with YouGov, finds similar tiny cracks in Trump’s purportedly impenetrable wall of support. And, to be clear, the existing cracks are tiny: 40% of Republican primary voters said the indictment would make them more likely to vote for Trump while just 4% said it would make them less likely. A majority of 56% said it would have no effect.
Two other questions posed by CBS hint at some exhaustion with Trump’s perpetual grievance machine: Asked if they want to hear Trump discuss “the legal cases and investigations against him,” just 39% of likely GOP primary voters said they would while 61% said they wouldn’t. Comparatively, 92% want to hear Trump discuss his plans for a second term.
And though Trump has his own personal obsessions with loyalty, GOP voters place a little less emphasis on the issue: Only 31% said a candidate other than Trump, if they win the GOP nomination, should “show loyalty” to the former president. A 64% majority said they would prefer the candidate not talk about Trump at all. (The never-Trump crowd remains minuscule: Just 4% wanted a candidate who attacked Trump.)
And while Scott and Haley dipped their toes in the water of confronting Trump, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie remains the Republican running most fully prepared to challenge the president.
Appearing on CNN on Monday night, Christie said Trump was dragging the country through his own personal dramas. “This is vanity run amok.” he said. “Ego run amok.”
Other Republican candidates are far more interested in defending Trump and criticizing the Justice Department, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the former president’s biggest rival for the 2024 nomination. Another candidate, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, plans to appear in Miami on Tuesday ― to host a press conference defending Trump.