The Trump defense industrial complex goes a bit quiet after Carroll verdict
In the past, when prosecutors or the courts have smacked Trump, the former president fumed and the GOP rage machine spun itself into overdrive, framing the court developments as acts of political persecution. In the Carroll case,
the first part happened, but not the second.
That most Republicans were not talking about $83 million in damages reflects both a discomfort with, and an uncertainty about, the political implications of the verdict. It also hints at a latent fear: that the ruling may prove to be a turnoff for some independent or conservative-leaning women in the suburbs.
“It will hurt with independent voters in November,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist and veteran of past presidential campaigns.
Not everyone was quiet in the wake of the ruling. Most outspoken, loyal supporters of Trump are right there with him. Kari Lake, the MAGA flamethrower running for U.S. Senate in Arizona — and stumping for Trump in early primary states — released a statement decrying a verdict she said “proves, yet again, that the system isn’t just broken — it’s corrupt as hell.” Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York
called it “outrageous,” while Matt Gaetz
wrote on X, formerly Twitter, “A country where you cannot deny a fantastical, false allegation is not a free country.”
But the Republican National Committee chair, Ronna McDaniel —
no wallflower when it comes to advocacy for Trump — was focused instead on Saturday on hammering President Joe Biden on the border. Nikki Haley, Trump’s last remaining serious challenger in the presidential primary,
took the opportunity to slam Trump. But her criticism was a bank shot — not about the verdict itself, but about the fact that Trump’s problems distracted him — and, by virtue, the party — from other priorities.
“Donald Trump wants to be the presumptive Republican nominee and we’re talking about $83 million in damages,”
Haley wrote on X. “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.”
Some of Trump’s critics said they weren’t surprised that many of his defenders chose to keep an arm’s length from the fallout. This wasn’t a case about classified documents, or an effort to keep him off the ballot. The jury’s award came for remarks Trump made about Carroll in response to her rape accusation.
“It’s his one legal case that no Republican gives a damn about because it doesn’t fit with their narrative that the Democrats are using the justice system to prevent him from running for office,” said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh — who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020. “Which is bullshit. But this one is just about Trump’s personal behavior. It’s separate.”
As for that fallout, it’s hard to quantify at this point. That’s because it is, to a degree, hard to see what voters will glean from the Carroll case that they did not already know. Trump has weathered everything from the “Access Hollywood” tape to an
indictment for his alleged role in a scheme to pay hush money to a porn star.
The country has lived through the extraordinary already and Trump’s come out on the other side as the likely GOP presidential nominee.
Trump’s success with female Republicans has been a major storyline so far in the primary. In both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, he won a majority of Republican-voting women,
according to entrance and exit polls. And in New Hampshire, he did that when the field was down only to him and Haley and when he was leaving the trail on occasion to sit in court for the Carroll trial.
“Trump chaos is baked in the cake at this point,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican strategist. “If you’re a Trump fan, this is just more evidence of how he’s being persecuted. If you’re a never-Trumper it’s just another of many examples of why Trump shouldn’t be president again.”
Of the Republican response to the Carroll verdict, he said, “The reaction was a big yawn.”
There are specific reasons that might be the case. The verdict came late on a Friday, on a big day in border talks in Washington. The presidential primary is down to just Trump and Haley, relieving Trump’s prior competitors of the pressure they once came under to immediately express outrage at the treatment of the frontrunner. And then there are legal matters specific to this case.
One Republican lawyer and strategist granted anonymity to speak freely, suggested Trump’s defenders would be wise to show some restraint in this instance lest they find themselves in legal peril too: “Who else wants to pick up a defamation charge?”
On the other hand, there are costs associated with saying nothing, too — especially for any Republicans who might be inclined to criticize Trump.
Jennifer Horn, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said that when it comes to Republican public officials, “It’s really, really disappointing to see them be so silent.”
“It’s an acquiescence to the idea that they are going to nominate a despicable human being who has been identified as a sexual abuser,” said Horn, who is now an independent.
The Republican Party, she said, has a “long history of dismissing and demeaning issues that are important to women.”