(Reuters) – Former President Donald Trump’s rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination have criticized the move to charge him over his handling of classified documents, underscoring their fear of angering key Trump supporters necessary to win the race are.
The indictment of a former US president on federal charges is unprecedented in American history, a case made even more extraordinary by the fact that Trump is the front runner in the Republican race to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden next year.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Senator Tim Scott were among presidential candidates on Thursday who accused the Justice Department of political bias after it was revealed Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury for keeping classified documents, obstructing the judiciary and other crimes.
“Arming federal law enforcement poses a deadly threat to a free society,” DeSantis, who trails Trump in the polls by a wide margin, wrote on Twitter. “For years we have seen unequal application of the law based on political affiliation.”
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Scott, whose poll numbers are in the single digits, also criticized what he called the “arming” of federal prosecutors.
“What we see today is a judiciary system in which the scales are weighted,” he said in an interview on Fox News.
A spokesman for Special Counsel Jack Smith, the Justice Department official leading the investigation, declined to comment. It is illegal for the government to comment publicly on a sealed grand jury matter.
At a White House press briefing ahead of the indictment Thursday, Biden said the public can trust the Justice Department to act fairly and independently, including in its investigation of Trump.
“Not once have I suggested to the Justice Department what they should or shouldn’t do when it comes to filing charges or not filing charges,” Biden replied to a reporter’s question.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a venture capitalist who is a long-term candidate for the Republican nomination, issued a statement accusing Biden’s Justice Department of unfairly targeting the former president and vowing to pardon him if elected.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, another long-term candidate, has been the only competitor to openly criticize Trump. Hutchinson argued that Trump violated the constitution and showed a “disrespect for the rule of law” and called on him to end his campaign.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who this week criticized Trump when announcing his own 2024 bid, said he wanted to see the details of the charges before commenting.
“As I’ve said before, no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish to be,” he said on Twitter.
By and large, however, the challengers came to Trump’s defense, perhaps given that Trump’s indictment in New York in March for allegedly paying a porn star hush money only helped boost his poll ratings. Many Republicans viewed the charges as politically sensitive and sided with him.
Rivals are wary of angering Trump’s base, which makes up an estimated 30% of the Republican electorate and is largely staunchly supportive of Trump.
But Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Arizona Republican adviser, said he believes the cumulative effect of the criminal charges will begin to take its toll.
Trump is under investigation in Georgia for allegedly attempting to overturn the state’s 2020 election and faces a separate federal investigation into his alleged role in his supporters’ attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
As the charges pile up, Coughlin predicts that the other Republican candidates will start arguing that Trump can’t win the general election.
“There has to be a fatigue factor,” Coughlin said. “It needs to start creating a break.”
(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lincoln Feast.)
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