Within hours of former President Donald Trump's announcement on Thursday evening that he had been indicted by federal prosecutors for allegedly mishandling classified information, senior Republicans in Washington and beyond had rallied behind him, using social media to denounce the charges as a misuse of authority by the administration of President Joe Biden.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, currently the most powerful Republican in Washington, denounced the indictment in a tweet late Thursday. McCarthy called it "unconscionable" for the Biden administration to indict the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 and the person most likely to challenge Biden in his reelection bid.
Even some of the Republicans who are challenging the former president for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 spoke out against the indictment. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis dismissed the charges as a "weaponization" of the government, a word echoed by many of the former president's supporters.
Republican leaders continued to express support Friday afternoon, after the indictment was unsealed, revealing that the former president is facing 37 felony counts. Trump is facing 31 counts of willful retention of national security documents, one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, four counts related to concealing documents, and one count of making false statements and representations.
The indictment, among other things, cites a recording in prosecutors' possession in which Trump describes a document he took from the White House related to confidential military planning. In the recording, he acknowledges that it is classified, and says that while he could have declassified it while president, he never did.
Trump claims innocence
Trump and his attorneys have repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. In an interview with CNN late Thursday, Trump's then-attorney, Jim Trusty, called the charges "ludicrous" and said that Trump intends to mount a strong defense. He repeated the former president's insistence that the charges are politically motivated.
Trusty also repeated a common complaint by Trump and his supporters, who point out that President Joe Biden, too, kept classified documents after his term as vice president ended in 2017. Biden, however, immediately returned the documents when they were discovered by an attorney working in his home in January of this year. Trump, by contrast, repeatedly denied possessing classified information until the FBI executed a search warrant on his Florida home last August and found dozens of secret documents.
On Friday, Trusty and another attorney who had been representing the former president announced that they had resigned and were no longer representing Trump.
The charges against Trump were filed by special counsel Jack Smith, a politically independent former head of the Department of Justice's public integrity unit and a former war crimes prosecutor in The Hague.
As a special counsel, Smith operates outside the direct supervision of the Department of Justice, an arrangement put in place because of the political sensitivity of an investigation involving a former president and current presidential candidate. In addition to the documents case, Smith is also overseeing an investigation of Trump's effort to overturn his election loss to Biden in 2020, which led to the storming of the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters on January 6, 2021.
McCarthy on Thursday tweeted, "Today is indeed a dark day for the United States of America. It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him. Joe Biden kept classified documents for decades."
He added, "I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with President Trump against this grave injustice. House Republicans will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable."
How Republicans will seek to hold someone accountable for the indictment is unclear. Democrats immediately warned McCarthy against using Congress to interfere in the federal justice system.
Some of Trump's most ardent supporters in Congress likewise assailed the decision to charge him.
Florida Representative Matt Gaetz wrote on Twitter, "This phony Boxes Hoax indictment against President Trump reflects the most severe election interference on the part of the federal government that we have EVER seen!"
Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene attacked law enforcement agencies on Twitter for participating in the investigation of the former president. "It's shameful. Pathetic really. Ultimately the biggest hypocrisy in modern day history. A complete and total failure to the American people. A stain on our nation that the FBI and DOJ are so corrupt and they don't even hide it anymore."
Several of the Republicans challenging Trump for the GOP nomination in 2024 had been cautiously increasing their criticism of the former president, concerned about alienating his significant base of supporters within the party.
However, on Thursday, many of Trump's rivals were quick to take his side against the federal government.
"The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society," wrote DeSantis, currently Trump's leading opponent. "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?"
De Santis was referring to HIllary Clinton, the former Democratic presidential nominee who was investigated, but never charged, with mishandling classified information, and Hunter Biden, the president's son, who is currently under federal investigation.
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who served as Trump's ambassador to the U.N., said Friday, "This is not how justice should be pursued in our country." She added, "The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards, and vendetta politics."
In an interview on Fox News, Senator Tim Scott, also a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, called the charges against Trump an "injustice" and said, "What we've seen over the last several years is the weaponization of the Department of Justice against a former president."
Candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman running for the Republican presidential nomination, recorded a video in which he denounced the prosecution of Trump and said that, if elected, he would pardon the former president.
Some break ranks
Some Republicans were more willing to consider the validity of the charges.
"Let's see what the facts are when any possible indictment is released," former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tweeted before the indictment was unsealed. "As I have said before, no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were. We will have more to say when the facts are revealed." As of Friday evening, he had not released any further comments.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson released a statement calling on the former president to withdraw from the race for the Republican nomination.
"Donald Trump's actions — from his willful disregard for the Constitution to his disrespect for the rule of law — should not define our nation or the Republican Party," Hutchinson said. "This is a sad day for our country. While Donald Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence, the ongoing criminal proceedings will be a major distraction. This reaffirms the need for Donald Trump to respect the office and end his campaign."
Former Vice President Mike Pence appeared to try to have it both ways. In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Pence said that he was "deeply troubled" by the decision to charge the former president, but quickly followed up with, "But let me be very clear: No one is above the law."