Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie answers a question alongside former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson during the Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News on Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee.
MILWAUKEE — When the two former federal prosecutors on the 2024 Republican primary debate stage disparaged an accused felon who faces nearly 100 criminal counts in four separate indictments, they were roundly booed.
The audience on Wednesday night made it clear it was on the side of the accused felon.
Such is the state of the “law and order” party — at least when the accused felon is the coup-attempting former President Donald Trump, who on Thursday was to be arrested and booked for the fourth time in as many months, this time on racketeering charges based on his attempts to coerce Georgia officials into overturning his 2020 election loss there.
“This is my friendly battle with my fellow Republicans,” said Bill Palatucci, a Republican National Committee member from New Jersey who has, since the day Trump’s words and actions incited an attack on the U.S. Capitol, argued that the party has to repudiate Trump and move on.
Palatucci and the other 167 members of the RNC attended the debate, along with 150 supporters of each of the eight candidates participating and another several thousand Republicans chosen by the party and the debate sponsors. The event was scheduled to coincide with the party’s summer meeting and was held at the same venue that will host the 2024 Republican nominating convention.
“We, as a party, have got to do better,” Palatucci said.
That, said GOP consultant Sarah Longwell, is not likely to happen in a party where Trump has been working to delegitimize federal prosecutors and the FBI since it began investigating why Russian dictator Vladimir Putin helped Trump win his 2016 election, with Trump eagerly accepting that assistance.
“They live in the Republican ‘triangle of doom,’” she said of Trump supporters. “Becoming ever more extreme due to the toxic and symbiotic relationship between Republican voters, right-wing infotainment media, and Republican elected officials.”
Former Republican congressman David Jolly traced the deep distrust of federal law enforcement and government in general back to the “tea party” movement that started in reaction to the election of the first Black president, Barack Obama, and quickly began taking over the Republican Party.
“Trump saw it, seized the movement, and used it to crush the traditional orthodoxy of the party,” Jolly said. “He rebuilt the party in his image with a loyal constituency desperate to implement their movement. [Former New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie and [former Arkansas Gov. Asa] Hutchinson represent a direct challenge to that movement, and they’re not welcome.”
Perhaps even more striking, the six candidates who were not former United States attorneys — including former Vice President Mike Pence, who was nearly killed by Trump’s mob on Jan. 6, 2021 — all said they would support Trump’s candidacy, should he wind up the 2024 Republican nominee.
The base refuses to deal with the Trump legal stuff.David Kochel, Republican consultant in Iowa
Speaking with reporters after the debate on Wednesday, Hutchinson, who spent two and a half years as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said secretaries of state and judges could easily rule that Trump is violating the 14th Amendment’s ban on insurrectionists running for office, thereby removing him from the ballot entirely in key states. “Trump is putting our voters in a very difficult position, and we need to think about this seriously,” Hutchinson said.
During a 10-minute stretch of the debate devoted to Trump’s criminal cases, Hutchinson and Christie, who had previously spent six years as the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, tried to argue that even without the indictments, Trump’s attempts to remain in office despite losing the election should disqualify him from the presidency.
“Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States,” Christie said to a fresh round of boos. “And, you know, this is the great thing about this country. Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth. It doesn’t change the truth.”
Polling thus far suggests that Republican primary voters have an alternative view of “truth,” with majorities saying they believe that the 2020 election was actually stolen from Trump through fraud and that Trump did nothing wrong.
“The base refuses to deal with the Trump legal stuff,” said David Kochel, a veteran Republican consultant in Iowa, which will hold the first contest of the 2024 primary season in January.
Oscar Brock, an RNC member from Tennessee, said he hopes that between now and then, primary voters will come to agree with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s assessment that Trump is the “most disliked politician in all of America” and go with someone else.
“I think at the end of day, even Republican primary voters will say ‘no’ to that,” he said. “It’s a losing proposition if Donald Trump is the nominee.”
But not even all of Brock’s colleagues in the RNC, whose mission, in theory, is to win elections, agree that Trump is a sure-fire loser, despite poor GOP election performances in 2018, 2020, 2021 and 2022 — all tied to Trump himself and to candidates he backed solely because they agreed to spread his election lies.
Jay Shephard, an RNC member from Vermont, said Trump could certainly win the general election in 2024 if Americans continue to see the economy as weak and can be persuaded of the corruption of the “Biden crime family.”
Because of all that, he said, Trump should be able to win, just like any of the other Republican candidates should be able to win. “Would it be easier with one of the others? Perhaps,” Shephard said.