The impeachments of Donald J. Trump, past and pending, are becoming the background music of the 2024 presidential campaign: always there, shaping the mood, but not quite in the spotlight.
Like much of Trump’s presidency, the extraordinary has become so flat that Trump’s warning Tuesday that he faced a possible third indictment this year, this time for his role in the events that led to the Capitol Hill storming on Jan. 6, drew a shrug from some sections of his party and a confused response from his rivals.
At a Republican congressional fundraising luncheon Tuesday in Washington, news of a likely third Trump impeachment was not mentioned at all, an aide said. Strategists for some opposing campaigns all but ignored the development. And on Capitol Hill, Trump’s allies quickly resumed their now usual defensive positions.
Two and a half years ago, the deadly riot that desecrated the nation’s seat of government threatened to forever tarnish Trump’s political legacy. His followers had stormed the Capitol to stop the certification of his defeat, encouraged by his leader, who had urged them to “fight like hell.” Even long-loyal Republicans broke with him as shattered glass littered the Capitol complex.
Yet today, Trump is the undisputed favorite for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination. And the threatened January 6-related charges against Trump turned into attacks on his successor by his Republican supporters on Tuesday.
“We have yet another example of Joe Biden’s armed Justice Department targeting his main political opponent, Donald Trump,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 4 Republican in the House of Representatives, told reporters on Capitol Hill.
When Trump and Stefanik spoke by phone Tuesday, the former president stayed on the line as they discussed ways to use Republican-led House committees to try to attack investigations. Trump also spoke with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who accused the Biden administration of trying to “arm the government to go after his number one opponent.”
His comments echoed a role Republicans in Congress played for Trump twice before when he was impeached and twice more when he was impeached earlier this year. The first indictment came in March, from the Manhattan district attorney in connection with hush money payments to a porn star. The second was in June, when he was charged with keeping classified documents top secret and obstructing efforts to recover them.
Republicans and the extended orbit of Trump have set a pace for how to respond. Yet on the campaign trail, Trump’s main rivals continue to struggle to even articulate a response.
Chief among them is Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Trump’s main rival in the polls. At a stop in South Carolina, DeSantis said Tuesday that Trump “should have come out stronger” against the protesters who stormed the Capitol that day.
But after Trump surrogates took that line to attack Mr. DeSantis, his usually blunt DeSantis War Room Twitter account was anything but belligerent, accusing those surrogates of taking the governor out of context.
“I hope they don’t impeach him,” DeSantis said of Trump in an interview later broadcast on CNN.
The CNN interview was supposed to be a high-profile moment for a candidate who had previously avoided any gatherings that might legitimize the “corporate media” he regularly denounces. Instead, the network interrupted its own exclusive taped interview of DeSantis with live updates from outside a courthouse in Florida about Trump’s upcoming trials. The sequence seemed to capture the state of the race that Trump dominates.
Justin Clark, who served as Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2020 and whose firm, National Public Affairs, conducted polls of the primary race, said the challenge for his rivals is the voters themselves. Data from Clark’s firm shows that Republicans see an attack on Trump “as an attack on them,” he said.
“That loyalty is not an easy thing to beat in a campaign,” he added. “Their opponents also see this, and that is why they are very careful. It’s hard to see another Republican blow up when primary voters are rallying around his most recent president and any challenger has to hold their fire.”
Trump revealed Tuesday that he had received a “letter of objectives” from Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, who is investigating his role in the lead-up to the January 6 violence.
“Almost always means arrest and indictment,” Trump wrote of the target letter on Truth Social.
Smith’s office already charged Trump in federal court in June, saying he possessed reams of national defense material and obstructed the investigation. In the coming weeks, he faces a possible indictment in Georgia related to efforts to overturn the 2020 election in that state.
Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as Trump’s communications director before resigning in late 2020 and publicly breaking up with her former boss, said: “The most surprising thing to me is that most of Trump’s Republican opponents, who trail him by double digits in the polls, still won’t take this opportunity to call out his improper actions.”
One reason is that Mr. Trump and Republican primary voters have so painstakingly rewritten the history of January 6, 2021. The mere mention of the day is no longer an overwhelmingly clear political underdog for the former president, at least in a Republican primary. Mr. Trump, two months after the attack, declared the violence a “love party” and has continued to do so.
In fact, at a rally this year in Texas, Trump put his hand to his heart and listened to the song “Justice for All” that included his voice and that of some prisoners from January 6.
Few prominent elected officials were as directly affected on January 6 as former Vice President Mike Pence. But even he refused to suggest that Trump should be prosecuted, saying the election should be the way the matter is adjudicated.
“I think history will hold him accountable for his actions that day,” Pence said Tuesday on NewsNation. But of one accusation, he said: “I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’m not convinced that the president acting on the bad advice of a bunch of crackpot lawyers who came to the White House in the days leading up to January 6th is really criminal.”
There were some exceptions.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said in a statement that “Donald Trump’s actions on January 6 should disqualify him from running for president again.”
And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wrote on Twitter that he wants to see the impeachment itself before offering his opinion, but added that Mr. Trump’s “conduct on January 6 shows he doesn’t care about our country and our Constitution.”
Yet the details laid out in the first federal indictment against Trump — allegations that he displayed material he described as secret government documents in front of unauthorized persons at two of his private clubs — did little to dent his support. Several Republican elected officials instinctively jumped to support him, and his poll numbers stayed high or even rose.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist in California who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential run, says he believes it will eventually all become too much of a burden for Trump to win the nomination.
“There has been the question of eligibility, and as these allegations mount and details emerge, I don’t think we know yet whether voters will stick with it if there appear to be viable competitive alternatives,” Stutzman said.
Trump’s team has capitalized on his previous allegations to raise huge sums of money for the campaign. But on Tuesday in Iowa, in a town hall-style interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump dismissed the friendly host’s suggestion that he was able to get rid of his latest legal tangle.
“No,” Trump said, “it bothers me.”
mayan king contributed reporting.