Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said Tuesday that President Donald Trump “should have come out more forcefully” to stop rioters in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — offering his most direct criticism of his 2024 GOP primary rival to date — but said he didn’t think Trump acted with criminal intent in the episode.
DeSantis’s nuanced comments came shortly after Trump said he is a target of the special counsel’s federal criminal investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
The remarks underscored the challenge facing Trump’s rivals as they try to sell themselves as an alternative to the former president but also appeal to voters in a party still largely supportive of him.
Congressional Republicans, particularly in the House, largely rallied around Trump on Tuesday, reflecting his broad support within the GOP, and accused President Biden of further “weaponizing” the Justice Department.
Asked at a South Carolina campaign event about the target letter Trump said he received from special counsel Jack Smith, DeSantis said that he did not know many of the details. However, he suggested that his 2024 rival shouldn’t be facing what would be a second federal indictment.
“There’s a difference between being brought up on criminal charges and doing things,” DeSantis said. “I think it was shown how [Trump] was in the White House and didn’t do anything while things were going on. … He should have come out more forcefully, of course, but to try to criminalize that, that’s a different issue entirely.”
DeSantis’s attempt to thread the needle did not sit well with the Trump campaign. Spokesman Steven Cheung blasted the remarks as a “disqualifying take from an unserious candidate in the last throes of his failed candidacy.”
Previously, DeSantis sidestepped the question of Trump’s culpability on Jan. 6. On the campaign trail last month, the Florida governor said: “I wasn’t anywhere near Washington that day. I have nothing to do with what happened that day. Obviously, I didn’t enjoy seeing what happened, but we’ve got to go forward on this stuff.”
Some Republican hopefuls further back in polling, including former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, seemed more willing to take Trump to task.
Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor, reiterated his call for Trump to drop out of the race, saying his conduct on Jan. 6 should disqualify him from another term.
But Hutchinson acknowledged in a roundtable interview with Washington Post reporters that another indictment would probably boost Trump politically, at least in the short term.
“I expect his poll numbers to go up again,” he said.
But Hutchinson said he is hopeful that “over the long term … you have to believe that people are going to understand the seriousness of it, you’re going to see the challenge of being a president or even being a candidate with multiple indictments against you, and that is going to jeopardize us winning in 2024.”
Nikki Haley, another GOP presidential contender who was a U.N. ambassador under Trump, said her former boss’s acknowledgment that he is the target of the long-running investigation is the latest example of why GOP voters should not vote for him in the primary.
In an interview on Fox News, Haley, a former South Carolina governor, emphasized that “the rest of this primary election is going to be in reference to Trump.”
“It’s going to keep on going,” Haley said, adding that Republicans “need a new generational leader.”
“It’s going to be about lawsuits, it’s going to be about legal fees, it’s going to be about judges, and it’s going to continue to be a further and further distraction,” she said.
Haley added: “We can’t keep dealing with this drama, we can’t keep dealing with the negativity, we can’t keep dealing with all of this.”
Yet it seems Trump’s opponents have little choice but to deal with it, and that path forward is difficult to navigate.
Earlier this year, DeSantis got GOP backlash for taking a veiled swipe at Trump’s indictment in New York in a case stemming from hush money payments to an adult film actress. DeSantis criticized the prosecutor but also made sure to highlight the case’s sordid nature.
“Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” he told reporters.
Later, he declined to directly criticize Trump over his indictment on allegations of mishandling classified documents and obstructing government efforts to retrieve them, joining other Republicans blasting the Justice Department.
The response on the House side of the Capitol on Tuesday underscored how Republicans are largely sticking to that messaging.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking House Republican, was eager to weigh in on Trump’s disclosure.
“I also want to comment on the breaking news,” she told reporters shortly after Trump said he had received a letter from Smith on Sunday. “We have yet again another example of Joe Biden’s weaponized Department of Justice targeting his top political opponent, Donald Trump.”
That sentiment was echoed by other congressional Republicans who suggested, without evidence, that the special counsel is moving toward another indictment of Trump largely for political reasons.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested baselessly that Trump might be indicted again because his poll numbers in the 2024 presidential race went up.
“President Trump went up in the polls and actually was surpassing President Biden for reelection, so what do they do now? Weaponize government to go after their number-one opponent,” McCarthy told reporters.
A CNN-SSRS poll published last month found Biden and Trump polling at similar levels.
Briefing reporters Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed the “independence” of the Justice Department and said Biden is being “very, very mindful” to give it “space to do this investigation.”
“He has been very, very steadfast on making sure that the rule of law comes back in this administration, comes back in the White House, and more broadly, and that’s what we’ve seen,” she said.
Democrats were quick to point out that Smith had yet to secure an indictment from a grand jury and that there has been no airing of what the charges would be in an investigation that has focused on the events leading up to the attack on the Capitol.
“Attacking a potential indictment before seeing the evidence and charges is irresponsible,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in a tweet directed at McCarthy. “Do better.”
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), like other leading House Republicans, questioned the timing of the letter to Trump, suggesting without evidence that Smith is moving forward in response to House Republican progress in an investigation involving Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
“It begs the question, is there a double standard? Is justice being administered equally?” Scalise told reporters.
Some Republicans were more explicit in their support for the former president.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted “I STAND WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP!”
“By now, these indictments are nothing but background noise,” tweeted Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).
“Never in American history have we seen the Weaponization of the fed like this to interfere in an election,” tweeted Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Tex.).
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told reporters that the actions of the Justice Department toward Trump are “as wrong as it gets.”
Stefanik, a close Trump ally, seized on the developments to try to help the former president build his list of campaign supporters reachable by text message. Stefanik tweeted “WITCH HUNT” along with the number to sign up for messages from Trump on one’s mobile phone.
The response from Senate Republicans, who were returning to Washington on Tuesday, was more muted. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he had no immediate comment.
Timothy Bella, Dylan Wells and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.