Vulnerable Republicans stay silent on Trump conviction

Vulnerable House Republicans are treading carefully around the bombshell conviction of former President Trump, showing a wariness to wade into the prickly debate over hush money, porn stars and the integrity of a once-treasured criminal justice system that Trump has vilified.

While GOP leaders and a long list of rank-and-file Republicans — including a number of frontliners — have raced to Trump’s defense following the guilty verdict on all counts in his New York hush money trial, more than half of the 17 House Republicans representing districts won by President Biden in 2020 have so far remained silent.

The reticence has highlighted the tricky political landscape facing moderate Republicans in purple districts throughout the Trump era: While the former president has electrified the GOP’s conservative base, and even broadened the party’s tent, he’s also energized liberals, alienated independents and caused some centrist GOP voters to flee the party altogether. 

It’s a dynamic that’s led many swing-district Republicans to keep a cautious distance from Trump, a volatile figure known to demand loyalty within the party and exact revenge when he doesn’t get it. And that distance has been even more pronounced during Trump’s hush money trial, as a long list of front-line Republicans declines to comment in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s conviction on all 34 counts related to falsifying financial records to conceal an alleged affair with a porn star — a scandal that might have dimmed his chances of being elected to the White House in 2016.

“Everybody has to do what they think is wise,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) — who represents a district Biden won by six percentage points in 2020 — told The Hill in an interview, acknowledging the difficulty facing vulnerable Republicans like himself.

“I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer,” he added. “Everybody has to do it their own way and make their own judgment.”

The list of front-line Republicans yet to weigh in features a number of California lawmakers — including Reps. Mike Garcia, Michelle Steel, David Valadao, John Duarte and Young Kim — as well as Reps. Tom Kean Jr. (N.J.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and David Schweikert (Ariz.).

But even those who have commented on the controversial conviction are doing so cautiously, a nod to the tightrope they must walk as Trump’s grip on the GOP tightens, yet their districts lean blue.

Shortly after the verdict was read, Bacon wrote on X that it was a “Sad day for the country,” argued that the case was “​​an unprecedented prosecution for a crime very seldom charged,” and accused Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) of making prosecuting Trump part of his campaign platform.

He did, however, say that he has “trust in our legal system which includes the appeals process.”

The Nebraska Republican told The Hill that he decided to put out a statement after receiving several inquiries about his reaction — “I had like 10 journalists asking me” — but noted that he is criticizing how the case was conducted and not backing the former president’s conduct, while stressing that he will “respect” the final decision when the appeals process is all said and done.

“I’m not defending all the president’s behavior, by no means,” Bacon said. “But it seems selective and it’s done by a guy that was very partisan. But I think in the end, as the appeals process goes on, I will respect it.”

Another vulnerable Republican, Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (Ore.), also issued a statement that responded to the verdict without mentioning it. Instead, she sought to shift the focus onto other unrelated issues.

“It’s disappointing that the national narrative continues overshadowing the kitchen table issues Oregon families are facing every day,” she told KTVL News 10. “They are struggling with high prices, worried about rampant violent crime and drug use, and want a secure border and commonsense immigration policies. Sensationalizing the presidential race doesn’t change the fact that Oregonians want relief from the failed policies of the extreme.”

The political perils for any Republican bucking the former president have been made clear since the verdict, as the small handful of GOP figures who accepted the jury’s conclusion have been roundly attacked within the party, where there is little room for defying a former president who has denounced the justice system as “rigged.”

Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is now running for Senate in the Old Line State, for example, encouraged individuals “to respect the verdict and the legal process” regardless of the outcome minutes before the guilty charges were read

“At this dangerously divided moment in our history, all leaders—regardless of party—must not pour fuel on the fire with more toxic partisanship. We must reaffirm what has made this nation great: the rule of law,” he added.

That sentiment was quickly rejected by Trump adviser Chris LaCivita, who wrote on X: “You just ended your campaign.”

College Republicans received the same treatment. The group’s national committee wrote on X that the Trump verdict “was handed down by jurors whose decisions were made in accordance with our criminal justice system,” adding “As such, the outcome of this trial should be respected,” which Trump loyalists denounced.

“Opinions are like assholes …everyone has one,” LaCivita responded on X.

“I’m sorry, but this is a horrendously bad take,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted. “The verdict should be condemned as a stain on our nation and our justice system. It was the outgrowth of a rigged, corrupt process.”

Across the aisle, Democrats are hoping to exploit those internal tensions. On Thursday, the House Democrats’ campaign arm blasted out an email accusing vulnerable GOP lawmakers who have endorsed Trump’s candidacy of supporting a “now-convicted criminal.” 

“House Republicans only care about bending the knee to Trump, even when it means defending a convicted felon,” the message from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reads. 

To be sure, most Republicans — leadership, rank-and-file and even some vulnerable frontrunners — have circled the wagons around Trump following his conviction, dismissing the verdict as a liberal weaponization of the justice system that will only help Trump return to the White House in November.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called the outcome “a travesty of justice” and is demanding that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D), who prosecuted the case, testify next month before the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

“The Manhattan kangaroo court shows what happens when our justice system is weaponized by partisan prosecutors in front of a biased judge with an unfair process, designed to keep President Trump off the campaign trail and avoid bringing attention to President Biden’s failing radical policies,” Jordan wrote on X. 

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) took that defense a long step further, urging the Supreme Court to “step in” and overturn the jury’s verdict. 

“I think they will set this straight, but it’s gonna take a while,” Johnson said Friday morning on the “Fox and Friends” program.

Some front-line Republicans have also joined the fray. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), whose district went for Biden by more than 14 percentage points in 2020, said Bragg and “his left wing allies have completed their shameful witch hunt against President Trump by railroading a conviction through a partisan New York court in an attempt to help Joe Biden’s failing campaign,” and Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.), who hails from a Biden +4.6 district, said the verdict was “a perversion of our justice system.”

Bacon, for his part, rejected those sentiments, a reminder of the fine line vulnerable Republicans find themselves traversing, and the simmering tensions in the GOP conference — and party at-large — over Trump.

“I’m not into overreach. When I read this morning all the criticisms that were like have kangaroo courts and third-world court system, I don’t like it,” Bacon said. “We live in the greatest country in the world and I don’t want to tear apart the fabric of this country.”

“So I think it’s important to say that I’m gonna respect the process. So I expect an appeals to be done and I don’t know what the final answer will be but I’m gonna respect the final answer.”

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