Donald Trump’s day trip to an Atlanta jail Thursday will show that the defining moments of the 2024 election are more likely to happen in the courtroom than in campaign trail rituals like the presidential debate that he cold-shouldered.
The idea that the front-runner for a major party nomination would boycott the first televised clash between candidates, then the next day surrender to authorities over his fourth criminal indictment would have been unthinkable at any previous moment in history. But that’s the reality as an unprecedented presidential election unfolds under the shadow of Trump’s criminal peril – and his extraordinary strength in the GOP primary that, at least for now, allows him to ignore all the normal rules of campaigning.
The fiery Republican Party debate in the critical swing state of Wisconsin on Wednesday night was the kind of conventional event that White House hopefuls have used for decades to try to ignite their campaigns. It crackled with spirited moments between torqued-up rivals on issues like abortion and several boiling personal feuds. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s patience snapped at the glib answers of 38-year-old entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t have the breakout moment some may have hoped for the candidate polling in second, although he appeared to steady his campaign after a series of stumbles triggered ridicule and speculation that he is in free fall.
And yet the melee in Milwaukee was like a prize fight that lacked the reigning champion, as Trump stayed home, reasoning that he is so far ahead in the GOP primary that he had nothing to gain by showing up. At best, the debate turned into an audition for second place in a race that, on the current trajectory, looks likely to catapult Trump to his third consecutive Republican nomination.
The debate – hosted by Fox News, which has amplified many of Trump’s false claims he won the 2020 election – exemplified the impossible conundrum at the center of the GOP race. Other major candidates are struggling to take advantage of Trump’s legal quagmire without angering primary voters, many of whom see the prosecutions lined up against the former president as politically motivated, even if they are open to an alternative nominee.
And in that sense, the ex-president might have won by staying away – even if his unwillingness to submit to debating his policies before voters on live television smacks of the same contempt for democracy that has landed him with four criminal indictments.
When co-moderator Bret Baier mentioned “the elephant not in the room,” the temperature in the debate hall shot up, as the crowd loudly booed any candidate who was critical of the ex-president. The reaction reflected the fact that taking on Trump over indictments he has skillfully branded as political persecution is hardly a recipe for success in a Republican primary.
“The argument we need to have in this party before we can move on the issues. … We have to dispense with the person who said we have to suspend with the Constitution to put forward his political career,” Christie said, raising his voice above the jeering. The problem, however, as the debate eloquently showed, is that the former New Jersey governor, who polls in the low single digits, is limiting his prospects in the primary race with such a strong stance. That’s why other candidates largely avoided criticizing Trump’s attempt to overturn democracy after the last election – refusing to comment on the gravity of the charges he faces and instead accusing the Biden administration of politicizing the law.
DeSantis, for instance, complained that Republicans should stop talking about what happened on January 6, 2021, and need to instead address what will happen on January 20, 2025, when the next president takes office. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott accused President Joe Biden of “weaponizing justice” against Trump. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley quickly pivoted to her argument that it is time for a younger generation to take power. Former Vice President Mike Pence was more explicit, defending his refusal to bow to Trump’s demands to effectively steal the election when he presided over the certification of the 2020 result in Congress. “He asked me to put him over the Constitution. I chose the Constitution and I always will,” Pence said. The ex-vice president’s ceiling in the race is, however, limited by the belief of many Trump supporters that he was disloyal.
There are much clearer incentives in the GOP for standing with Trump, and Ramaswamy drew raucous cheers by vowing to use pardon powers of the presidency to spare the former president if he is convicted.
Candidates like Christie, who are willing to tell the truth about Trump and address the logjam of criminal cases that could hurt him among more moderate general election voters, appear to have little chance to win the nomination. And those like DeSantis, who hedge around the issue – implying that Trump could be a liability in 2024 but are loath to criticize his conduct – are doing nothing to slow the ex-president. On the one hand, a candidate like DeSantis may have little to gain by attacking a hugely popular front-runner. But if he can’t ding Trump on his biggest liability, it’s hard to see how he catches him.
The strategy of muddling through on Trump’s indictments and hoping that he will tumble to earth isn’t working.
The liabilities that Trump would carry into a general election as the Republican nominee will be graphically spelled out when he heads to Fulton County, Georgia, where he and 18 co-defendants have been indicted over an attempt to steal Biden’s 2020 victory.
If Trump is treated the same way as his co-defendants, he will be fingerprinted and will have to submit to a mug shot – which would be a jarring moment in American history. Trump’s former attorney Rudolph Giuliani, the hero mayor of 9/11, surrendered on a $150,000 bond on Wednesday. He stared into a camera for his mug shot in a remarkable reversal for a man who made his reputation in the 1980s by prosecuting Mafia dons using similar racketeering legislation under which he is now charged.
Trump, exploiting his unrelenting support among GOP primary voters, has pulled off the feat of wielding multiple indictments as a political shield. He has effectively merged his defense strategy and his political campaign, signaling that his best hope of disrupting his coming trials and any convictions will be to win the White House. And he is continuing to attack the rule of law and repeat the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. “I got indicted four times. All trivia nonsense. Bullsh*t. It’s all bullsh*t,” Trump told former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in an interview that aired on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter, that was played at the same time as the debate.
In normal circumstances, the GOP showdown in Milwaukee would have offered days of exposure to candidates like DeSantis, Haley and Pence, who all had their moments in aggressive exchanges that could go viral on social media. All the candidates, meanwhile, laid out arguments on issues like the economy, immigration and national security that mirror many of the concerns expressed by rank-and-file Republicans at their events.
But the spectacle of Trump’s big jet with his name on the side heading to Georgia for processing at the Fulton County jail will soon overshadow the rest of the race and may well deepen the fury of pro-Trump supporters and other primary voters who believe he is being persecuted. It was, therefore, not clear whether any of the eight candidates on stage Wednesday night did anything to narrow the huge gap between Trump and everyone else.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally, told reporters at the debate that he was confident that Trump would not pay a price for his no-show and said he believed that the real movement would come lower down in the field. “My expectation is that Ramaswamy will assume second place in just about every major poll,” Gaetz said.
But Ken Cuccinelli, who is backing DeSantis despite serving in Trump’s administration, argued that the Florida governor had used Trump’s absence to make a valuable connection with Republican voters. “People in the Republican Party feel like they know President Trump; they have an understanding of the guy,” Cuccinelli said, adding that DeSantis, partly through a performance that benefited from his long bus tours through Iowa and New Hampshire, got a jump on forming his own bond with voters at the debate.
Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said that DeSantis was under fierce pressure entering the debate because of his campaign stumbles but had implemented a sound strategy. “He was smartest by avoiding the fray,” Kall said, noting that Pence and Christie, in particular, unleashed repeated attacks on Ramaswamy. “And on the Trump point, he understood that this audience has no penchant for attacking Trump with him not being there,” Kall added.
So will Trump stick with his strategy of refusing to elevate his rivals by appearing with them on stage – for instance, at the next GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan library in California next month?
“In the next debate, there’s not going to be any Atlanta surrender and counterprogramming,” Kall said. “It at least gets him thinking – maybe I may need to show up.”