For G.O.P. Rivals, an Unhappy Task: Defend the Man Dominating the Polls

In the topsy-turvy world of 2024 Republican politics, rivals of Donald J. Trump had been bracing for weeks for his second indictment with more dread than any sense of opportunity.

After years of successive scandals, the immediate instincts of so many Republican voters are thoroughly ingrained. They snap to Mr. Trump’s defense, no matter how outrageous the charges are or who is making them — Democrats, the news media, local prosecutors or, now, federal ones. Donations surged after Mr. Trump’s first indictment in Manhattan. And he consolidated support in the polls.

Even prominent Republicans eager for the party to cast aside Mr. Trump in 2024 were concerned ahead of the indictment. They have long been exasperated by the immunity of Mr. Trump’s base to almost any attack or argument, swarming to neutralize any perceived political threat almost by habit.

“There’s a lot of folks who just don’t buy any of it,” Chris Sununu, the Republican governor of New Hampshire who announced this week that he would not run for president in 2024, said in a recent interview. “Democrats are like the boy who cried wolf. ‘Oh, no, no. But this is real.’”

He added, “It’s created a situation where a lot of Republican voters intuitively dismiss any criticism at the former president.”

On Thursday evening, Mr. Trump’s rivals immediately faced the uncomfortable choice of joining the chorus of conservatives who quickly rallied behind Mr. Trump, or looking like they weren’t on Team G.O.P. at a moment of heightened tribal politics. Those who did speak came mostly to the defense of the candidate dominating them in the polls.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said “the weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” though he did not explicitly defend Mr. Trump.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina also decried “the weaponization of the Department of Justice” in an interview on Fox News that had been scheduled before the indictment. “You don’t have to be a Republican to see injustice,” he said.

And Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur running a hard-line but long-shot candidacy, went further, pledging, “I commit to pardon Trump promptly on January 20, 2025.”

The exception was Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor clinging to the margins of the race as a bastion of old-guard Republicanism. He called for Mr. Trump to end his campaign.

Most Republicans, conservative commentators and Trump allies ratcheted up pressure immediately to close ranks behind a former president facing charges that emanated from a special counsel appointed by a Justice Department that reports to President Biden. “PEAK WITCH HUNT,” blared the banner headline on Breitbart. A pro-Trump super PAC circulated supportive statements from more than 50 elected officials and conservative figures within four hours of Mr. Trump’s announcing his own indictment.

“This will only cause a firestorm of support,” Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist who hosts the streaming “War Room” program that is popular with the party’s right-wing base, wrote in a text message. “Rivals would be wise to ‘heave-to.’”

Mr. Trump raised $4 million in the first 24 hours after his last indictment. His campaign sent out its first emailed plea for cash less than 30 minutes after publicizing this one.

There are longer-term questions about the political fallout from the indictment, which adds yet another piece of baggage for a now twice-impeached and twice-indicted former president. Then there is the issue of actual legal jeopardy: The specific charges include willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and a conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Yet on Fox News, the cable channel that serves as the information circulatory system for millions of Republican primary voters, the coverage on Thursday was almost universally aghast at the seven federal counts Mr. Trump is facing, even if the details have not been made public yet. The host Mark Levin called “June 8th, the day of insurrection, not January 6th.” Breaking-news banners and repeated segments trumpeted Democratic apostasies and scandals, from Hillary Clinton to President Biden, that did not result in prosecution.

Pete Hegseth, the Fox News host, goaded Mr. Trump’s 2024 rivals to travel in solidarity to Florida, where Mr. Trump said he had been summoned to a federal courthouse next week: “Every single Republican nominee should be down in Miami on Tuesday night — standing behind — standing for justice in the country, saying ‘I may be running for president’ — Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, whoever, Ron DeSantis — ‘but this is injustice.’”

Mr. Hegseth added, “I don’t think they have a chance now considering what Trump is up against.”

Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina, a Republican who at times has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, sounded a similar note on the same network. “I do believe tonight that Joe Biden just secured Donald Trump’s nomination for Republicans in 2024,” Ms. Mace said.

The highest-ranking elected Republican in America, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, was among those who cast unifying behind Mr. Trump as beyond parochial political considerations.

“I, and every American who believes in the rule of law,” Mr. McCarthy wrote on Twitter, “stand with President Trump.”

Shane Goldmacher is a national political reporter and was previously the chief political correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times, he worked at Politico, where he covered national Republican politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. @ShaneGoldmacher

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