The 37-count federal indictment against former President Trump is putting the Republican senators who endorsed him in an awkward position.
They are sticking with the president, who is enormously popular with much of the GOP base, despite the allegations that Trump mishandled classified information and conspired to obstruct justice.
But there are signs of anxiety even among his most staunch supporters, who are focusing their fire on the Justice Department — a strategy that allows them to avoid a more direct defense of Trump’s specific actions.
“It’s awkward to have endorsed Trump and have to basically play lawyer and make a legal defense of Trump when they just don’t want to be talking about that,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.
“They want to be talking about policy but now these members who have endorsed Trump are shifted into playing lawyer and defending Trump,” he added.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s closest Senate allies, acknowledged to reporters that he was disturbed by the allegations that Trump mishandled top secret documents.
“I don’t like it. I don’t like mishandling classified information by anybody,” Graham told reporters Tuesday.
But Graham, who’s endorsed Trump’s White House bid, then pointed to Hillary Clinton and the former secretary of State’s email server. He also directed the discussion to President Biden, who turned over classified documents found in his garage from his service as vice president.
There are significant differences between Biden, who cooperated fully with authorities after classified documents were discovered by his team, and Trump, who as the indictment unsealed Friday suggests actively tried to thwart authorities from retaking classified documents in his possession.
But Biden and Clinton remain useful tools for Graham.
“How should the legal system treat President Trump in light of what’s happened in the past and my view is that to charge him after similar behavior going uncharged would be bad for the country,” Graham said.
At the same time, he acknowledged Trump could have spared himself trouble by simply giving back the classified documents.
“Most politicians get in trouble by self-inflicted wounds, yeah,” Graham said when asked if Trump should have simply given back the documents when the National Archives and Records Administration and then the FBI asked for them.
Still, Graham is sticking with his endorsement.
“Yeah, I intend to support President Trump. I don’t think this trial goes to trial before the election,” he said.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who had been previously reported as leaning toward endorsing Trump, this week clarified that the endorses Trump’s policies but not his presidential campaign.
Braun told The Hill he’s “endorsing the policies” of Trump but clarified “I’ve not endorsed anyone officially.”
“I think he’s the only one that’s got a record that would be projectable into the future,” he said.
Asked if he was disturbed about the allegations of Trump’s handing of classified information, Braun replied, “I don’t generally comment on the ebb and flow … I’m more of a long-term thinker in general.”
Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who has endorsed Trump’s presidential campaign, declined to comment on the specific allegations of the indictment, which he criticized as part of “a very partisan, in my view, prosecution.”
“I’m very discouraged to see the DOJ weaponized in this fashion,” he said, referring to the Department of Justice.
Hagerty waved aside a question about whether he would withdraw his endorsement if Trump is convicted.
“I’d be shocked if he were convicted of anything. What we’re seeing right now is just a one-sided slice of the complaint. I’ve made no plans of that nature at all because I don’t expect to see any type of conviction,” he said.
Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio), another senator who has endorsed Trump, argued that the former president should have broad power to decide what records to keep from his own administration, regardless of how they are classified.
“I feel very strongly that this is a turf war between the permanent bureaucracy and the elected president and the tie has to go to the elected president every single time. I think the principle at stake here is when the government produces documents — who owns it? — and I think that’s the elected president and not the bureaucracy,” Vance said.
He has placed a hold on all of Biden’s nominees to the Department of Justice — except for nominees to the U.S. Marshals Service — to protest Trump’s prosecution.
Vance said he will keep his hold in place until Attorney General Merrick Garland “makes a substantial change in policy.”
Other Senate Republicans who have endorsed Trump include Sens. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Ted Budd (N.C.), National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines (Mont.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.), Markwayne Mullin (Okla.), Eric Schmitt (Mo.) and Tommy Tuberville (Ala.).
Trump’s strongest supporters in the Senate have had to weather the sharp criticisms that fellow Republican senators have leveled at the former president.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said many of his constituents at home believe the Department of Justice is focused unfairly on Trump by not also bringing charges against prominent Democrats accused of mishandling classified information.
“Going back years, Hillary Clinton has 30,000 emails that got erased. Why is it that none of that ever comes up and why weren’t there any indictments on those issues?” he said, summarizing the concerns of many GOP voters.
But he noted that doesn’t change the view of many Republicans that what Trump did was “wrong.”
“From my perspective and a lot of people that are concerned about classified information, what he did was wrong and he should not have had that material and that material should have been in a safe environment,” Rounds said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has raised alarms about the threat Trump’s actions have posed to national security.
“The charges in this case are quite serious and cannot be casually dismissed,” she said last week, warning that mishandling classified documents may expose national secrets and the sensitive sources and methods used to gather intelligence.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) declined to comment about the discomfort that some of his Senate GOP colleagues may feel about having to defend Trump from a federal indictment but said “my own view is the conduct carried out by former President Trump was outrageous and dangerous to the national security.”
At least one staunch Trump ally, Tuberville, doesn’t seem at all rattled by the legal storm swirling around Trump. He traveled up to Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., the same day Trump got arraigned in Miami where Tuberville attended a rally and then had dinner with the president.
Tuberville said he and Trump talked about the merger of the PGA Tour with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf.
“We talked golf. We talked the PGA and LIV GOLF,” he said. “Of course he owns a lot of golf courses.”