The first reaction to Tuesday’s unprecedented verdict finding a former president and current White House candidate liable for sexual abuse offered no reason to suggest that Donald Trump’s position as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination is under any immediate threat.
But some of his GOP critics raised questions about his fitness for office that are certain to be at the center of the next general election if he is the Republican nominee.
“That and several other things cause me to question whether he’d be the best nominee for the party,” North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, who has not yet endorsed, told CNN’s Manu Raju.
The unanimous verdict could deepen his vulnerability among key voting groups, including women – among whom the GOP needs to improve to win back the White House.
“I think he would sink. He would not win the White House. He would probably cause us to lose the House and the Senate,” GOP Rep. Don Bacon told CNN’s Melanie Zanona. “I would see very dark clouds on the horizon if he is the nominee,” added Bacon, who represents a Nebraska district President Joe Biden won and has already said he will not support Trump for the nomination.
The jury found Trump sexually abused former magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll in a New York Department store in 1996 and that he was liable for battery and defamation, while awarding her $5 million. The unanimous jury verdict was vindication for Carroll and offered a symbolic win for other women who have made assault allegations against the president. Trump, who has denied all wrongdoing, immediately denounced the trial as a witch hunt and said he didn’t even know Carroll. He said later Tuesday evening that he will appeal.
For most of modern US history and for most candidates, Tuesday’s developments would raise potentially insurmountable questions of viability. Many White House hopefuls have exited presidential races for less. And Trump, who’s pleaded not guilty in a separate criminal case involving hush money payments to an adult film star in New York, is facing multiple legal threats. He’s waiting to see whether he will be indicted in separate probes into his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election and his hoarding of classified documents. But the fact that Trump won’t quit the GOP race – and no one will make him – shows his dominance of the Republican Party, and how he redefined behavioral expectations for public life.
No one can know how Tuesday’s verdict will influence the voters in GOP primaries early next year or the outcome of a national election that is 18 months away. Since the trial was civil rather than criminal in nature, Trump will not face a conviction or jail time. And multiple other dramas surrounding Trump, if he’s the nominee, and Biden will likely erupt and shape the campaign next year, when this verdict will be a mere memory.
Still, the immediate political reverberations of the Carroll case are already playing out in the Republican presidential race and among key GOP figures in Washington, offering a window into the state of the party and national politics as it stands now.
There has so far been silence from most of Trump’s rivals or potential foes in the GOP nominating contest. The lack of response underscores how 2024 hopefuls are struggling to define their profiles as alternatives to him while seeking to avoid angering his supporters. No statement has yet emerged from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or prospective White House contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. While there is a clear sense of exhaustion among some Republican voters over Trump’s endless scandals and personal political vulnerabilities, those who have voiced that frustration aren’t polling anywhere near the former president, if they’re running at all.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson – who earned 1% in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents – did step up with an unequivocal condemnation of Trump. He told CNN’s Erin Burnett that the jury system was sacrosanct, that the jurors in this case had delivered a judgment that meant Trump was not fit to serve and that Republicans should consider the electoral implications of having such a candidate leading their ticket.
“I give respect to what juries find. By and large they get it right,” Hutchinson said, arguing that having a president who’d been found liable of sexual abuse would counter core US values. He said that the United States was remarkable for its jury and justice systems. “Let’s not undermine it and disrespect it.”
But having defined much of his candidacy against Trump, Hutchinson is considered a longshot.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy characteristically dodged commenting on the verdict after leaving debt crisis talks at the White House on Tuesday. But the California Republican did Trump a service by pointing out that the ex-president – a forceful influence on his narrow House majority – had denied wrongdoing.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch Trump supporter, amplified the ex-president’s claims that he can’t get a fair trial in Manhattan – a reference to the hush money case as well as Tuesday’s verdict. “I think the New York legal system is off the rails when it comes to Donald Trump,” Graham said.
One of the most fervent opponents of Trump’s behavior, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, did not hold back. He noted that “the jury of his peers” found Trump liable for sexual abuse “and awarded $5 million to the person who was damaged.” The 2012 GOP presidential nominee added, “I hope the jury of the American people reach the same conclusion about Donald Trump.”
As scathing as it was, Romney’s disdain for Trump could have been predicted.
Cramer of North Dakota – who in March pointed out that Trump’s indictment in the hush money case didn’t equal a conviction – did express some concern about Tuesday’s developments, though he also nodded to the political factors that could insulate Trump from long-term damage.
“It’s very serious. But I think as a political matter, it’s less interesting to the people outside Washington, DC, than it is inside these walls or on Capitol Hill,” he said.
“I’d much rather have a president that doesn’t have that history, but at the same time, at some point, there’ll be a binary choice, and then we’ll make it.”
This is far from the first time that questions have been raised about Trump’s treatment of women – and how that could turn off some voters. The debate now is whether this time is any different.
Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper whether the verdict in New York should disqualify Trump from being the GOP nominee, former Trump White House communications director Alyssa Farah Griffin said, “I guess the answer is, it should.”
“This one of the many firsts in history that Donald Trump has managed to achieve – a new low,” added Griffin, now a CNN political commentator. She pointed out that after the 2016 emergence of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape – in which Trump boasted that stars could grab women’s genitals with impunity – many Republicans worried about his character. Now, she argued, those concerns had been validated by a jury of his peers that found Trump liable for sexual abuse. “We cannot afford to put this man up as Republicans if we actually want to win because women will run from voting from him.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who has criticized Trump in the past, said: “Of course it creates concern. How could it not create concern?” But he added that it was up to voters to decide whether it should disqualify him.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said he doesn’t think the verdict will affect the Trump base, but it may influence some swing voters who are critical to a general election.
“I do think there’s a, you know, cumulative effect to just the constant drama and chaos that always seems to surround him. But, you know, like I said, that doesn’t seem to impact his hardcore supporters,” the South Dakota Republican told reporters.
That’s in part a consequence of Trump and his conservative media cheerleaders having done such an effective job of delegitimizing in the eyes of his supporters any institution that holds him to account, including the courts.
Trump’s connection with his voters is an emotional one. His coalition delights in his refusal to live by the rules of what are seen as establishment elites – and even the rule of law. His claims that he is a victim of Democrats who have weaponized the legal system are a powerful organizing principle of his campaign. So, it’s hard to see the ex-president’s core supporters turning against him on this issue after so many tumultuous years.
One of his staunchest supporters in Congress, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, spelled out a truism of the Trump era when he told reporters Tuesday evening that he didn’t think the verdict “is going to make much of a difference.”
Read the full article here