The impeachments of Donald J. Trump – past and pending – are becoming the background music of the 2024 presidential campaign: always there, shaping the mood, yet not fully the focus.
Like much of the Trump presidency itself, the extraordinary has become so flattened that Mr. Trump’s warning on Tuesday that he faces a possible third impeachment this year, this time for his involvement in the events that led to the storm of January 6th. the Capitol, drew shrugs from some parts of his group and a confused response from his rivals.
At one Republican congressional fundraising luncheon Tuesday in Washington, the news of a possible third Trump impeachment was completely unmentioned, an attendee said. The strategists of some opposing campaigns almost ignored the development. And on Capitol Hill, Mr. Trump’s allies quickly resumed their now-customary defensive positions.
Two and a half years ago, the deadly riot that left the nation’s seat of government defiled threatened to forever tarnish Mr. Trump’s political legacy. His supporters stormed the Capitol to stop the certification of his defeat, spurred on by their leader, who urged them to “fight like hell.” Even long-loyal Republicans broke with him when shattered glass littered the Capitol complex.
Today, however, Mr. Trump is the undisputed front-runner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2024. And the threatened charges related to January 6 against Mr. Trump were instead turned into attacks on his successor by his Republican defenders on Tuesday.
“We have yet another example of Joe Biden’s weaponized Justice Department targeting his top political opponent, Donald Trump,” Representative Elise Stefanik, the No. 4 House Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill.
When Mr. Trump and Ms. Stefanik spoke by phone on Tuesday, the former president lingered on the line as they discussed ways to use the Republican-led House committees to try to attack the investigations. Mr. Trump also spoke with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who accused the Biden administration of trying to “weaponize government to go after his No. 1 opponent.”
Their comments echoed a role Republicans in Congress played for Mr. Trump twice before when he was impeached, and twice again when he was impeached earlier this year. The first charge came in March, by the district attorney in Manhattan in connection with hush money payments to a porn star. The second was in June, when he was indicted on charges of keeping classified secret documents and obstructing efforts to retrieve them.
Republicans and Mr. Trump’s extended orbit have set a pace for how to respond. Yet on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump’s main rivals continue to struggle to even articulate a response.
Chief among them is Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Mr. Trump’s top electoral rival. At a stop in South Carolina, Mr. DeSantis said on Tuesday that Mr. Trump “should have come out stronger” against the protesters who stormed the Capitol that day.
But after that line was picked up by Trump surrogates to attack Mr. DeSantis, his usually strong DeSantis War Room Twitter account was anything but belligerent, accusing those surrogates of taking the governor out of context.
“I hope he doesn’t get impeached,” Mr. DeSantis said of Mr. Trump in an interview that aired later on CNN.
The CNN interview was thought to be an important moment for a candidate who has previously avoided any seats that might legitimize the “corporate media” he regularly denounces. Instead, the network interrupted its own exclusive taped interview of DeSantis with live updates from outside a courthouse in Florida about Mr. Trump’s upcoming trials. The sequence seemed to capture the state of the race that Mr. Trump is in control of.
Justin Clark, who served as Mr. Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2020 and whose firm, National Public Affairs, conducted polling of the primary race, said the challenge for his rivals is the voters themselves. Data from Mr. Clark’s firm shows that Republicans view an attack on Mr. Trump “as an attack on them,” he said.
“That loyalty is not something that can be easily beaten in a campaign,” he added. “His opponents also see this, and therefore they tread very carefully. It’s hard to see how another Republican takes off when primary voters are rallying around their most recent president and all challengers have to hold their fire.”
Mr Trump revealed on Tuesday that he had received a “target letter” from the Justice Department’s special counsel, Jack Smith, who is investigating his role in the lead-up to the January 6 violence.
“Almost always means arrest and indictment,” Mr. Trump wrote of the target letter on Truth Social.
Mr. Smith’s office already sued Mr. Trump in federal court in June, saying he possessed troves of national defense material and obstructed the investigation. In the coming weeks, he faces possible indictment in Georgia in connection with efforts to nullify the 2020 election in that state.
Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as Mr. Trump’s communications director before resigning in late 2020 and publicly breaking with her former boss, said, “The most striking thing for me is that most of Trump’s GOP opponents , who are voting double digits behind him. , will not yet seize this opportunity to denounce his inappropriate actions.”
One reason is that Mr. Trump, and Republican primary voters, have so thoroughly rewritten the history of January 6, 2021. The mere mention of the day is no longer an overwhelmingly clear political loser for the former president, at least in a Republican. primary Mr. Trump, two months after the attack, declared the violence a “love fest,” and has continued to do so.
Indeed, at a rally this year in Texas, Mr. Trump put his hand over his heart and listened to the song “Justice for All,” which featured his voice and those of some of the Jan. 6 inmates.
Few prominent elected officials were as directly affected on January 6 as former Vice President Mike Pence. But even he refused to suggest Mr Trump should be sued and said the choice should be how the matter is arbitrated.
“I believe history will hold him accountable for his actions that day,” Mr Pence said on NewsNation on Tuesday. But about an indictment, he said, “I hope it doesn’t come to that. I am not convinced that the president acting on bad advice from a group of crack lawyers who came into the White House in the days leading up to January 6th is actually criminal.”
There were some exceptions.
The low-ballot former governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, said in a statement that “Donald Trump’s actions on January 6th should disqualify him from being president again.”
And former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey wrote on Twitter that he wanted to see the indictment for himself before giving his opinion, but added that Mr. Trump’s “behavior on Jan. 6 shows he doesn’t care about our country and our Constitution.”
Still, the details laid out in the first federal indictment against Mr. Trump — allegations that he brandished what he described as classified government documents in front of people without security clearances at two of his private clubs — did little to dent his support. Several Republican elected officials instinctively jumped to support him, and his poll numbers remained high or even increased.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist in California who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential race, says he believes it will ultimately become too much of a burden for Mr. Trump to carry to win the nomination.
“There’s the question of electability and as these allegations pile up and details emerge, I don’t think we know yet whether voters will stick with him if there appear to be viable competitive alternatives,” Mr. Stutzman said.
Mr Trump’s team has capitalized on his past allegations to raise huge sums of campaign cash. But in Iowa on Tuesday, in a town hall-style interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Mr. Trump dismissed the friendly host’s suggestion that he could shake off his latest legal entanglement.
“No,” Mr. Trump said, “it bothers me.”
Maya King contributed reporting.