(Bloomberg) -- The federal charges against Donald Trump will test his supporters’ tolerance for the growing scandals weighing on his White House comeback bid, as Republican rivals look to wrest the 2024 nomination from the former president.
Trump, who leads other GOP candidates by double-digit margins, assailed the indictment by a Florida grand jury as politically motivated.
“This is nothing but a disgusting act of Election Interference by the ruling party,” he said in a fundraising appeal to supporters that echoed the grievances that spurred Republicans to back him in the past.
The long list of allegations against Trump have not deterred his base in the past. The former president enjoyed a surge in fundraising and standing in polls among primary voters in April, after he was indicted in a Manhattan court over alleged hush money payments to adult-film actor Stormy Daniels.
Trump’s first in-person response to the charges is expected to come at Republican state conventions he’s scheduled to attend on Saturday in Georgia and North Carolina.
Yet the 37-count indictment over his alleged mishandling of classified documents — unsealed by the Justice Department on Friday — marks a significant escalation in his legal exposure and cuts to the heart of his competency to be commander in chief. That opens a lane for Republican rivals to offer themselves as an alternative to his third bid for the Oval Office.
What remains to be seen is whether Trump will again be able to execute what is now a familiar play: deflect grievance onto his adversaries and away from his actions.
For now, key Republicans are lining up behind Trump in calling the charges an abuse of power by President Joe Biden. Trump’s top competitor in the GOP race, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, railed against government overreach, while House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — facing his own revolt from Trump loyalists on Capitol Hill — tweeted that Thursday was a “dark day for the United States of America.”
Biden said Thursday he hadn’t spoken to the Justice Department about the case.
The charging document paints a picture of a former president who knowingly flouted the strict procedures surrounding classified documents designed to protect the nation’s security. Federal prosecutors allege that Trump willfully deceived the government and pressured his aides and attorneys to do the same.
The indictment includes the transcript of a recording of Trump at his New Jersey golf club showing off military documents that he calls “secret” and acknowledging that they were classified.
“As president, I could have declassified, but now I can’t,” Trump allegedly said.
The case represents a stark contrast with the presidential campaign that Trump waged in 2016 against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, whom he accused of endangering the nation’s secrets by using a private email server for official work when she was secretary of state.
It’s too early to tell whether Republican primary voters, who have so far been fiercely loyal to Trump and his populist policies, have the stamina to keep standing by their man.
Trump will be campaigning for the nomination weighted down by a trial early next year on the 34 felony counts in Manhattan and awaiting trial in the documents case. In August, he’s potentially facing more indictments in Georgia over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results there.
News of the federal indictment erupted just days after one-time allies, former Vice President Mike Pence and ex-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, entered the GOP race with sharp criticism of Trump’s penchant for drama and fitness for office.
“This is irresponsible conduct” that’s “particularly awful for someone who has been president and who aspires to be president again,” Christie, a former US attorney, said in a CNN interview after the indictment’s release.
Trump’s actions as laid out by prosecutors are “damning,” he said. “And that’s what I think we as a party should be looking at.”
Pence stopped short of attacking Trump on Friday, hours before the indictment was unsealed.
“The American people will be able to judge for themselves whether this is just the latest incident of weaponization and politicization at the Justice Department, or if it’s something different,” he said on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
While it’s unclear if Trump’s legal woes will impede his path to the Republican nomination, they are sure to give pause to the independents and moderate GOP voters he would need to win a general election.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic, said candidates should jump at the chance to weaken Trump’s campaign.
“If you’re not using it as an example of, or a reason to highlight why Donald Trump shouldn’t be nominated and why he can’t win in November, what are you waiting for?” he said.
--With assistance from Mark Niquette, Zoe Tillman, Chris Strohm and Erik Larson.
(Updates with Christie comments in 17th paragraph.)
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