After Donald Trump was indicted for the fourth time, a handful of Georgia Republicans at the heart of the case issued a sharp political rebuke of the former president. Ex-lieutenant governor Geoff Duncan argued that Republican voters should assess the damage Trump has wrought and “hit the reset button.” Gov. Brian Kemp refuted Trump’s false election claims and said, “The future of our country is at stake in 2024 and that must be our focus.”
But they were lonely voices in their party.
As Trump on Tuesday said he would be exonerated and planned to offer a more detailed rebuttal next week, some of his rivals in the Republican presidential primary echoed his attacks on the Fulton County prosecutor, even as they sidestepped the substance of the allegations facing him. “I think it’s an example of this criminalization of politics,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said. Only longer-shot hopefuls were directly critical of the former president.
And top congressional GOP leaders such as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California and one of his lieutenants, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, rushed to defend Trump from what they portrayed as an unfair prosecution. “Americans see through this desperate sham,” said McCarthy on social media late Monday.
The diverging responses were a testament to the deep and uneven divide within the GOP over the former president and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Much of the party has stuck by Trump, the runaway polling leader in the 2024 primary race, with many officials and politicians wary of crossing him and his enthusiastic base. As some of them try to occupy a middle ground, a smaller though vocal minority that is critical of the ex-president has persisted, forcing the party to grapple with enduring frictions over an issue many would rather not talk about in the lead-up to the next presidential election.
“There’s only one position to take on what played out yesterday in the Fulton County courthouse, and that is, it’s disgusting,” said Duncan, one of the last witnesses to testify before the Fulton County grand jury, in a Tuesday interview. “To think that we are going to stand behind somebody that’s in that level of trouble — times four — is ridiculous,” added the former lieutenant governor, who was one of the state officials whom Trump contacted as he urged them to take steps that would reverse his Georgia loss.
As the indictment dropped Monday charging Trump with 13 counts related to his efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss, some Republicans mentioned in the document argued that it was an inflection point for the Republican Party.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a Tuesday statement that the most basic principles of a strong democracy are accountability and respect for the Constitution, as well as the rule of law. “You either have it, or you don’t,” Raffensperger said.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) began her investigation into election interference in February 2021 after The Washington Post in January reported on audio leaked of a Trump call with Raffensperger, in which the then-president asked Raffensperger to help him “find” additional votes that would reverse his Georgia loss to now-President Biden. She also looked into how Trump’s allies advocated for investigations into alleged voting irregularities and urged supporters to back a slate of pro-Trump electors.
Kemp — who was pressured by Trump in 2020 to call a special session of the Georgia General Assembly in what the indictment calls “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy” — directly responded to a Trump social media post Tuesday that falsely claimed the 2020 election was “rigged.” Kemp stated flatly in his own social media message that “the 2020 election in Georgia was not stolen.” He added, “For nearly three years now, anyone with evidence of fraud has failed to come forward — under oath — and prove anything in a court of law.”
Trump sought to dismiss the fourth indictment as a “Witch Hunt” led by political opponents determined to prevent him from retaking the White House in 2024 and insisted he had done nothing wrong. “Why didn’t they Indict 2.5 years ago? Because they wanted to do it right in the middle of my political campaign,” Trump wrote on social media, echoing previous claims about his legal troubles.
On Monday, Willis rebutted that notion, long promoted by Trump and his allies. “I make decisions in this office based on facts and the law,” she said. “The law is completely nonpartisan. That’s how decisions are made in every case.”
The broad-ranging indictment accuses Trump and 18 of his associates of conspiring to change the outcome of the 2020 presidential election through a racketeering scheme that involved making false statements, filing false documents, and soliciting high-ranking officials to violate their oaths to the state and federal constitutions.
Many of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination were initially quiet on the indictment, before offering carefully worded comments about it. The caution they exhibited reflected both the complexity of the case and the fact that the previous three indictments appear to have done little to harm the former president’s standing among GOP primary voters.
DeSantis, Trump’s leading GOP rival, was critical of the indictment, even as he declined to defend Trump directly. In a virtual news conference with New England reporters where the indictment came up Tuesday, DeSantis pivoted away from Trump’s alleged crimes, saying he had not yet read the indictment.
But he suggested that Willis, a Democrat, should be spending more time focused on crime in Atlanta. He accused her office of using an “inordinate amount of resources” attempting “to shoehorn this contest over the 2020 election into a RICO statute” — referring to the racketeering charges that were leveled against Trump and his associates.
“I don’t think that this is something that is good for the country,” he told reporters. DeSantis noted that he has suspended two democratically elected prosecutors in Florida — moves that sparked a backlash in his home state.
“As president, we will lean in against some of these local prosecutors if they are not following the law or if they are abandoning their duty to enforce the law evenly,” he said.
Appearing at the Iowa State Fair on Tuesday, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, another 2024 GOP hopeful, sounded similar notes, charging that the country’s legal system is “being weaponized against political opponents.” He called that development “un-American and unacceptable.”
Scott said he had heard audio of the call between Trump and Raffensperger. But the senator did not answer whether he would have made a similar request if he had been president.
“Next question,” he said as a reporter tried to press him.
Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney and Trump ally turned critic who is challenging him for the GOP nomination, argued Tuesday that the indictment was “unnecessary” because the bulk of the allegations related to election interference were covered in the four-count federal indictment that special counsel Jack Smith announced at the beginning of the month.
Christie, a former New Jersey governor, also said he believed that Willis was seeking an “ego boost” with the indictment.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and former Texas congressman Will Hurd were outliers in the Republican field, pointing to what Hurd called Trump’s “baggage” as they argued that it was time for the GOP to embrace new leaders. Hutchinson noted that he has been arguing for more than a year that Trump should withdraw from the race “because of what he is facing.”
Duncan argued Tuesday that it was time for the Republican presidential contenders to step up and call out Trump for his conduct: “Everybody around Donald Trump that’s running for president is trying to tenderfoot their way through the issue. He’s wrong. He’s lied to America. He’s lied to every single Republican for years. And he’s forfeited the right to be called president,” he said.
But a majority of Republican voters have stood by Trump following his previous indictments. In a July New York Times and Siena College poll, 71 percent of potential GOP primary voters said Republicans needed to “stand behind Trump.” When asked whether Trump had committed serious federal crimes, 71 percent said he had not.
While some voters in early primary states have expressed concern that Trump’s legal troubles could distract from his effort to defeat Biden, the former president has seized on the indictments to raise millions of dollars in contributions for his campaign.
Though Trump’s opponents have largely avoided weighing too deeply into his legal troubles, advisers to many of them have said they believe that Trump’s growing legal entanglements will ultimately take a toll on his campaign as he is forced to focus more time, attention and financial resources on his defense.
Trump’s Republican rivals largely condemned or dismissed the first indictment of the former president this spring by a New York prosecutor, which is related to repayment of hush money to an adult-film actress during the 2016 presidential campaign.
But some had crept toward harder-edged critiques of his conduct as the charges grew more serious — particularly after Trump was indicted in the federal probe over the 2020 election. In a second federal case, Trump is charged with jeopardizing national defense secrets by illegally keeping classified documents from his presidency and conspiring with aides to cover up his actions.
Some of the former president’s close allies in Congress have signaled their continued support for his posture.
“Now a radical DA in Georgia is following Biden’s lead by attacking President Trump,” McCarthy said in a social media post. Stefanik called Willis “another rogue far left radical district attorney” who had weaponized her office “to target Biden’s top political opponent.”
Dylan Wells in Des Moines and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.