The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s talk of an arrest pushes 2024 election rivals to his defense

On March 19, former vice president Mike Pence and lawmakers reacted to former president Donald Trump’s call to rally supporters over his possible indictment. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Former vice president Mike Pence recently proclaimed that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable” for trying to overturn the 2020 election results and prompting the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

On Sunday, however, he was one of several potential rivals or candidates seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination who rushed to Trump’s defense, a day after the ex-president called for protests in the wake of what he said was his imminent arrest over a criminal investigation in Manhattan.

“I think it just tells you everything you need to know about the radical left in this country. It just feels like a politically charged prosecution here,” Pence said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

Pence, like several other Republicans preparing to challenge Trump for the presidential nomination or who are aligned with Trump’s rivals, jumped into the unlikely position of defending the party leader they hope to defeat. The positioning is another sign of how much Trump has helped change political norms; previous candidates may have welcomed inquiries that could have disqualified their political rivals.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been examining a $130,000 payment Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, said he made right before the 2016 election to Stephanie Clifford — an adult-film star who goes by the name Stormy Daniels — to ensure her silence about her purported affair with Trump. Trump has denied the affair but has admitted he reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Daniels, “to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her.”

Trump surprised his advisers Saturday morning by posting an all-caps message on his Truth Social platform claiming that he expected to be arrested Tuesday in that investigation.

Several leaders in the GOP suggested that an indictment would actually help, rather than hurt, Trump’s campaign to win back the White House.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), a moderate who is considering entering the race and who has said the party is “moving on” from Trump, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the pending charges against Trump are “building a lot of sympathy for the former president.”

Sununu said he met with people earlier Sunday, “none of them were big Trump supporters, but they all said they felt like he was being attacked.”

Sununu also downplayed the substance of the allegations against Trump. “There are other issues that really take precedent in terms of where this country needs to go,” Sununu said.

Vivek Ramaswamy sought to bolster his announced bid for the 2024 Republican nomination by harshly denouncing the case against Trump. He described it as “the ruling party of this country using police power to arrest its political opposition.”

Ramaswamy, regarded as a long-shot candidate, also demanded others join him in this opposition, including Nikki Haley, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor, who jumped into the race last month. Haley’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“We should want to win, not by eliminating the competition, but by earning the actual trust of the voters,” Ramaswamy said in a press availability he posted on Twitter.

Notably, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who hasn’t formally entered the 2024 race but is considered Trump’s biggest rival among Republicans, did not make any comments over the weekend about the hush-money case.

But Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who last November called DeSantis “America’s governor,” said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that the case against Trump was grossly unfair.

“I think this is one of the worst uses of the justice system we’ve ever seen,” Donalds said. “It’s going to descend all of America into further chaos.”

Then, referring to the Manhattan district attorney, Donalds added, “What Alvin Bragg is doing is wrong. He shouldn’t be going after Donald Trump.”

On Sunday afternoon, Trump again posted on Truth Social, asserting: “There was no crime, period.” He also labeled the investigation “Prosecutorial Misconduct and Interference with an Election.”

Many of the GOP leaders on the Sunday shows didn’t express any qualms about Trump’s earlier calls for “PROTEST” and to “TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” in his postings.

When Pence was asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl about the possibility of new violence from Trump’s calls for protests, he demurred, saying that “the American people have a constitutional right to peaceably assemble.” Pence also declined to comment on the merits of the case related to the hush-money payments.

Pence said he believed that the American people “know what happened” after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. “They know the fact that the president’s reckless words endangered people at the Capitol that day, including me and my family.”

The New York Police Department has been having internal meetings, including one Sunday, to discuss possibilities for handling protests around any potential Trump court appearance. A larger in-person conversation is expected early this week with representatives from the NYPD and other agencies that would be involved in security, including the District Attorney’s Office, Secret Service, New York State Court Officers and state court judges, people with knowledge of the effort have said.

City officials will probably have to determine how much leeway will be given to demonstrators — including how close to the courthouse they will be allowed and how much behavior will be permitted before arrests are made, according to one of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private planning efforts.

The Justice Department recently said that more than 999 people who were at the riot on Jan. 6 have been arrested on charges such as assault, entering a restricted federal building, destruction of government property and conspiracy. The Washington Post reported that prosecutors expect that the eventual number of people charged with crimes related to Jan. 6 might be somewhere between 1,600 and 2,100, according to a recent letter.

Law enforcement and court officers are bracing for any confrontations should Trump be arrested in the Manhattan case. Bragg sent a memo to employees that Politico obtained saying that his office would not “tolerate attempts to intimidate our office or threaten the rule of law in New York.”

Bragg added, “Our law enforcement partners will ensure that any specific or credible threats against the office will be fully investigated and that the proper safeguards are in place so all 1,600 of us have a secure work environment.”

Meanwhile, the New York Young Republican Club announced that it would hold a “peaceful protest” Monday in Lower Manhattan against “Alvin Bragg’s heinous attack” on Trump. “Members Only,” it said. “Rally location will be provided upon RSVP.”

Fenit Nirappil and Shayna Jacobs contributed reporting.