ORLANDO, Fla. — Given the chance to pounce, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is instead backing his rival Donald Trump, accusing the U.S. Department of Justice of partisan bias in charging the former president.
For political analysts, DeSantis’ unwillingness to attack Trump over his legal problems showcases the influence Trump retains with Republican voters, who are siding with him as he faces criminal charges in two different jurisdictions.
DeSantis must challenge Trump for the GOP presidential nomination but not in a way that will alienate Republicans who voted for him for president, said Gregory Koger, a political scientist at the University of Miami.
“From his point of view, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to come out swinging at Trump but rather let the sheer fact of the news itself and the attacks of other candidates do the work he does not want to do,” Koger said.
DeSantis joined other Republicans in criticizing the federal indictment over Trump’s handling of classified records as a partisan witch hunt, rather than going after a candidate who now faces criminal charges in two jurisdictions and could be politically wounded in a general election.
“The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” DeSantis tweeted just hours after news of the federal criminal charges broke Thursday night. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation. Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter? The DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.”
DeSantis, who is reportedly on a Texas fundraising trip, did not address in his tweet accusations from prosecutors that Trump hid sensitive documents and misled investigators.
The classified materials involved military secrets and issues of national security, such as a document detailing the nuclear capabilities of a foreign country, according to the indictment unsealed Friday.
The former president says he has done nothing wrong.
Koger expects Trump will see a short-term benefit from his latest legal troubles as supporters rally behind him and donations pour in.
But as time passes, Republican voters may start to question whether Trump can defeat President Joe Biden as a twice-indicted candidate, although a “sizable” base will stick with him no matter what happens, Koger said.
Privately, DeSantis told donors last month that he is the only candidate who can beat Biden, according to a report by The New York Times.
“They just want a vehicle they can get behind … but … there’s just too many voters that don’t view Trump as that vehicle,” DeSantis said on a call that a Times reporter listened in on.
Defying conventional political thinking, getting indicted is actually helping Trump with Republican voters who see the charges as political and without merit, said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida.
“I think DeSantis is aware that is where the Republican base is. … If he were to attack Trump over this, it would probably hurt him, not help him,” Jewett said.
Trump widened his lead over DeSantis after he was charged in March in Manhattan with falsifying business records, he said. That case involves accusations that Trump paid $130,000 in hush money to an adult film actress before the 2016 election.
DeSantis took a similar approach to those charges, attacking Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. But DeSantis also said he couldn’t speak to “paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” a comment perceived as a slight by some Trump supporters for which DeSantis took some heat.
Trump also is facing an investigation into potential election interference in Georgia.
Even if he is convicted, no legal obstacles would stop Trump from continuing his campaign, Jewett said.
“Theoretically, he could even be in jail and be elected president,” Jewett said.
The socialist Eugene V. Debs received nearly 1 million votes for president while he was in prison in 1920 for urging people to resist the military draft.
The 14th Amendment does disqualify any person from serving as president who previously held public office, swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution and “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
That provision was applied in the aftermath of the Civil War to former Confederate officials and can be lifted by a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress.
As a leading candidate facing criminal charges, Trump is taking the country into “undiscovered territory,” Koger said.
“Can you be president from a New York state jail? I’d like to think we’d never find out — that the Republican Party would not nominate someone in that situation,” Koger said.
Other GOP contenders took a different approach than DeSantis. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called on Trump to end his campaign, saying the ongoing criminal proceedings will be a “major distraction.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally-turned-critic, said he would reserve judgment until more facts are revealed while adding “no one is above the law.”
Other candidates, such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, took a strategy similar to DeSantis.
Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence also had classified documents at their homes, but their representatives say the documents were promptly turned over to the authorities when they were discovered. The Justice Department informed Pence it won’t charge Pence, while a special counsel is investigating Biden’s handling of classified documents.
Pence, who is seeking the presidential nomination in 2024, said he didn’t want to see his former boss charged over the records.