2024 Republican hopefuls rebuke Justice Department, not Trump after indictment
Updates with details of indictment in paragraph 6
By Nathan Layne
June 9 (Reuters) -Donald Trump's main rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination condemned the Justice Department for its move to charge him over his handling of classified documents, underscoring their fear of upsetting his core supporters.
The indictment of a former president on federal charges is unprecedented in U.S. history, a case made more extraordinary by Trump's status as the clear front-runner in the Republican race to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden next year.
Instead of using the indictment to undermine Trump's bid for the White House, however, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, U.S. Senator Tim Scott and Nikki Haley were among the candidates accusing the Justice Department ofpolitical bias, highlighting a stance that has become central to many of their own campaigns.
All sounded in before the indictment was unsealed on Friday afternoon, revealing detailed allegations that Trump had mishandled documents containing some of the country's most sensitive security secrets and obstructed the probe.
"The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society," DeSantis, who is running a distant second behind Trump in the polls, wrote on Twitter. "We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation.
Republicans have alleged, without evidence, that the Trump indictment is a politically motivated move by Biden. The Justice Department says all investigative decisions are made without regard to partisan politics, and has handed the investigation to a special counsel who was appointedin an effort to add a degree of independence to such a politically sensitive probe.
The 37-count indictment against Trump accused him of mishandling classified documents that included information about the secretive U.S. nuclear program and potential domestic vulnerabilities in the event of an attack. It also alleged that Trump discussed with his lawyers the possibility of lying to government officials seeking to recover the materials.
President Joe Biden, who is facing his own review over his handling of classified documents, reflecting the tightrope he must walk in dealing with a prosecution into his main political rival, said on Friday he had not spoken to Attorney General Merrick Garland about the case.
"I have not spoken to him at all and I’m not going to speak with him," Biden said, distancing himself from the investigation into his political rival.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a long-shot Republican candidate, was the sole rival so far to outright criticize Trump. Hutchinson called on him to end his campaign, arguing that Trump had flouted the Constitution and shown a "disrespect for the rule of law."
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who this week blasted Trump as he announced his own 2024 bid, said he wanted to see the details of the indictment before weighing in.
By and large, however, the challengers came to Trump's defense, perhaps mindful of how Trump's March indictment in New York over an alleged hush money payment to a porn star was seen by many Republicans as politically charged and only served to rally support to his side.
Trump's support has held steady through many other lawsuits and scandals but the serious charges laid out against him on Friday could give his Republican rivals ammunition to attack his record, especially on national security.
Chuck Coughlin, a longtime consultant for Republicans in Arizona, said the cumulative effect of criminal charges will begin to take its toll on Trump's base, which is thought to make up 30% of the Republican electorate.
Trump is also under investigation in Georgia for allegedly trying to overturn the 2020 election in the state, and faces a separate federal probe into his alleged role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.
If the indictments pile up, Coughlin predicts the other Republican candidates will start to argue that Trump cannot win the general election.
"There's got to be a fatigue factor there," Coughlin said.
RIVALS ECHO TRUMP'S RHETORIC
In the meantime, Trump's rivals are adopting his rhetoric against the Justice Department, accusing federal prosecutors of singling out Republicans, even as they cheer on a federal investigation into Biden's son, Hunter,over tax-related issues since 2018. The president's son has denied wrong-doing.
Scott, who is polling in the single digits, criticized what he also called the "weaponization" of federal prosecutors.
"Today what we see is a justice system where the scales are weighted," he said in an interview on Fox News late on Thursday.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a venture capitalist also considered a long shot for the Republican nomination, accused the Justice Department of unfairly targeting Trump and vowed to pardon him if elected.
Haley, U.N. ambassador under Trump, said Americans were "exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach," but also hinted at the chaos surrounding Trump.
"It's time to move beyond the endless drama and distractions," Haley wrote on Twitter on Friday.
In New Hampshire on Friday Pence said he was "deeply troubled" by the indictment, believing it would further divide the country. He added, however, that the American public should review the facts of the case and make their own judgment.
Reporting by Nathan Layne, Dan Whitcomb, Nandita Bose, Susan Heavey and Tim Reid; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Kieran Murray, Ross Colvin, Daniel Wallis and Alistair Bell
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