On Tuesday, New Hampshire Republican primary voters put Donald Trump on a glide path to the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, leading high-ranking Republicans to declare the race effectively over.
Three days later, those GOP officials got a taste of what they will be forced to account for over the next nine months. And it reinforced how difficult that’s going to be.
A jury ruled Friday that Trump must pay E. Jean Carroll $83.3 million for defaming her in the aftermath of her public claim that he sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s. The judgment comes on top of a $5 million verdict in May, when Trump was found liable for sexually abusing and defaming Carroll. The more recent judgment, unlike its predecessor, dealt with comments Trump made as president. The judge in the cases has said Trump was effectively found liable for rape.
Republicans have now begun to face the kinds of questions they are likely to encounter for months to come, amid Trump’s many other legal problems. And if the early evidence is any indication, they will attempt a whole lot of deflecting.
The few big-name Republicans who were forced to weigh in over the weekend — even his one remaining 2024 primary opponent, Nikki Haley — generally declined to address the merits of the case or cast moral judgment on Trump.
Perhaps most notably, even when they did gesture at Trump’s claims that he is being targeted by the legal system, they kept that allegation somewhat at arm’s length.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) was asked on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” whether the verdict gave him any pause about Trump’s returning to office. “It doesn’t,” he said.
“It’s been interesting the number of legal cases that have come up against President Trump and then have failed and have been dropped or have been kicked out of the courts on it,” Lankford said. “This one … actually went through. He’s already said he’s going to challenge it. So let the courts actually make their decisions, and let the American people make their decisions.”
Lankford has not yet endorsed Trump, but Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has.
Appearing on ABC News’s “This Week,” Scott was twice asked a similar question and avoided a direct answer. He instead suggested that other issues were more important:
What you might notice about both of these responses is that neither of them is truly vouching for Trump’s actions or claims of persecution. Lankford mentions that Trump is facing lots of legal cases but says we should wait for an appeal to render judgment; Scott merely cites “the perception that the legal system is being weaponized” without saying that’s what has happened in this case.
The one Republican who did lean in on the idea that Trump did something wrong was Haley. But even for her, it involved a dance. She mostly focused on the idea that this was a distraction that showed why the party should nominate her instead of Trump.
In a tweet Friday, Haley mentioned the size of the verdict but not the substance of the case.
“Donald Trump wants to be the presumptive Republican nominee and we’re talking about $83 million in damages,” she said. “We’re not talking about fixing the border. We’re not talking about tackling inflation.”
Donald Trump wants to be the presumptive Republican nominee and we’re talking about $83 million in damages. We’re not talking about fixing the border. We’re not talking about tackling inflation. America can do better than Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) January 26, 2024
On NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, host Kristen Welker asked Haley repeatedly about the verdict. About the closest Haley came to weighing in on the substance was when she said, “I absolutely trust the jury, and I think that they made their decision based on the evidence.”
As Semafor’s Benjy Sarlin notes, that in and of itself was significant, because Republicans so rarely grant the premise that Trump might have actually done something wrong.
But Haley also punted over and over on whether being found liable for sexual abuse was disqualifying. Three times she answered the question as if it were about whether Trump should be removed from the ballot. When she was pressed on whether it was disqualifying to her personally, she reverted to talking about other issues.
The struggles were a reminder of what could await the party. It’s easy to suggest that Trump is being targeted, as Lankford and Scott did; it’s more difficult when you have to account for an actual jury verdict — especially one involving something like sexual abuse.
Whatever you think about the substance of the Carroll cases, they epitomize how Trump creates problems for himself and his party. Even after being found liable for defamation and sexual abuse in May, he continued to repeat the kinds of statements that were found to be defamatory — over and over again.
Trump could soon face another large judgment — in his civil financial fraud case, in which he has already been found liable. He has also been indicted on 91 criminal counts across four cases, though the start dates for those trials remain up in the air.
Republicans have steadfastly avoided talking about the merits of these cases, but that could become much more difficult to do as they progress and as Trump solidifies his hold on the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Republicans have experience with standing by Trump without truly vouching for him and his claims, but that becomes more difficult when the cases against him are actually adjudicated by our legal system. At that point, truly going to bat for Trump requires tearing down our system of law and order in the process.
And last weekend provided a preview of the rhetorical gymnastics that lie ahead.