Being a Republican official in the United States since at least November 2016 (and probably a few months before) has meant picking one of three paths.
You can go all-in on demonstrating your fealty to Donald Trump, recognizing that this offers no guarantee of reciprocity.
You can ally with reality in those moments where it and Trump are in conflict, inevitably earning Trump’s ire.
Or you can try to sidestep it all, ignoring questions about emerging conflicts between Trump and reality and feigning ignorance of various scandals and accusations leveled against the former president.
If we were dividing the party’s elected leaders into each of those three buckets, about 30 percent would land in the first, 0.2 percent in the second and the majority in the third — heads down, never seeing any social media posts Trump offers, never quite having the time to answer reporters’ questions. It’s probably the best play politically; 2022 was a year in which both Trump extremists and Trump critics crumpled electorally. But it’s not really what you might call bold.
Tuesday afternoon presented a uniquely tricky test of this division. A jury in New York determined that Trump had both sexually assaulted and defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll, awarding her $5 million in compensation. It is a situation in which average Americans, presented with evidence and testimony, determined that Trump had behaved immorally, at best. That Trump had engaged in reprehensible behavior that might be expected to trigger a visceral response in a fully half of the American population, at a minimum.
But, you know. He’s also popular with Republican voters. So hard to say what response is appropriate.
Should you be a Republican official trying to navigate the moment, we’ve compiled a quick compendium of ways in which your compatriots have responded. Skim through, see which response best matches your needs and run with it! There’s certainly no need to take a firm position here if you haven’t done so for the past seven years.
Former vice president Mike Pence is not formally a candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024, but he’s doing all of the things an eventual candidate would do, like give interviews to major news outlets. There is one thing he’s not doing that an eventual candidate would do, though: criticize Trump.
“I would tell you, in my four and a half years serving alongside the president, I never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature,” Pence said in an interview with NBC News shortly after the verdict.
It’s certainly good to know that the sitting president never engaged in sexual assault in front of the vice president, though we can all agree that this is probably a fairly low bar to clear. This is a criticism masked as a defense, certainly; Pence won’t attest to the period before or since being Trump’s running mate. But it’s not much of a criticism.
Compare it to what Pence said in October 2016, after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape — a tape in which Trump described doing to women exactly what the jury found he did to Carroll.
“As a husband and a father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump in the 11-year-old video released yesterday,” he said in a statement then. “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them.”
And this was as Trump’s running mate.
Of course, that’s part of why he was bolder. There was an outside chance the GOP might try to dump Trump to Pence’s benefit, after all. But more importantly, Trump hadn’t yet been elected and affixed his solid grip on the Republican base. Now, in anticipation of trying to win votes from that base on his own merits, Pence feels the need to be more cautious, not less.
To his credit, Pence at least answered the question. (That his interview with NBC News was probably scheduled in advance of the verdict probably reduced his ability not to.) Other Republicans were less interested in doing so.
Reporters asked a number of Republicans for their thoughts on the verdict. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) hadn’t seen it yet, sorry, and besides, he was in the middle of something. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) was similarly insufficiently informed. As she was walking, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told a reporter she didn’t talk to reporters while she was walking.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and current Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — the former a declared and the latter a likely candidate for the presidential nomination — declined to weigh in. Their chief opponent offered them an opportunity for criticism like a shiny apple on a silver platter, but they’ve been around long enough to think there’s a good chance the apple will prove poisonous.
On Fox News on Tuesday night, Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel offered one reason DeSantis and Haley might feel that way: Republican voters (and voters overall) won’t really care.
“People want closure, they want to move on, and they want to talk about what is happening in their lives,” she said. “I think a lot of Americans want the focus to come back to them and the issues that matter in their lives.”
Of course, it is also McDaniel’s job to argue that such a development is irrelevant to the fortunes of her party’s most likely nominee for the 2024 election.
A number of Republicans simply shrugged. Others, echoing Trump himself, claimed that the entire trial was invalid or that the verdict might be overturned.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.): The system is “off the rails when it comes to Donald Trump.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “The whole case is a joke.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.): Trump will appeal “so we’ll see where the court takes us.”
Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron—one of the leading R candidates in the fierce GOP primary for governor—asked in debate how he feels about President Trump’s endorsement after today’s verdict in the E. Jean Carroll case: ‘I’m honored … He is a fighter and I am a fighter.’ pic.twitter.com/MOUnRtOwrU
— Alexi McCammond (@alexi) May 10, 2023
Vivek Ramaswamy, a long-shot candidate for the 2024 presidential nomination, took this approach in comments offered to Semafor.
The verdict, he said, was “part of the establishment system’s anaphylactic immune response against its chief political virus, Donald Trump.” There’s certainly a way to extend this metaphor to overlap with the justice system’s mechanisms for handling antisocial behavior, but that’s left as an exercise for the reader.
Some Republicans — often senators not immediately facing a Republican primary electorate — expressed concern about the verdict. Or, at least, about how it affected Trump’s viability in November 2024.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) offered that, “regardless of what you think about him as an individual, to me, electability is … the sole criterion.” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) indicated that he would have trouble supporting a presidential nominee who had been found liable for sexual assault.
“He’s been found to be civilly liable,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said: “How can you be anything else but concerned?”
In the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape, this was a common line of argument, of course. Those concerns faded quickly on Nov. 8, 2016.
Then there are those Republicans who were already in the 0.2 percent of Trump critics.
People like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who told reporters that he hoped “the jury of the American people reached the same conclusion about Donald Trump.” Or like Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who told a CNN reporter that Trump “got what he deserved.”
“I see very dark clouds on the horizon if he is the nominee,” he added.
A lot of other Republicans probably do, too. But many of them have weathered prior Trump-induced tempests by hunkering down and letting it blow over.
Many of them will quickly point out that, actually, the torrential rain is good for their crops.
This article originally inherited an error in a quote from Sen. Cassidy from another source. The quote has been corrected.