MILWAUKEE, Wis. ― Six of the eight Republicans running for their party’s presidential nomination promised Wednesday to support coup-attempting former President Donald Trump if he is the nominee, even if he is a convicted felon by then on charges in any one of the several indictments he faces.
The question arose at the Republican National Committee’s first primary debate, which was boycotted by Trump, when one of the Fox News moderators brought up the topic as “the elephant not in the room.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgam and even former Vice President Mike Pence ― who’s life was threatened by Trump’s mob on Jan. 6, 2021, when it attacked the U.S. Capitol ― all raised their hands when asked if they’d support him as the nominee.
Only the two former federal prosecutors on the stage, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said they would not.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said amid a chorus of boos, speaking of Trump’s attempt to remain in office despite losing the 2020 election.
Hutchinson pointed out that the 14 Amendment includes language that may well keep Trump off the ballot and that Republican voters need to bear that in mind. “This is something that could disqualify him under the Constitution.”
Pence, though he raised his hand and said he hoped “it couldn’t come” to criminal charges, said “no one’s above the law” and that Americans needed to know that the then-president had demanded that Pence put Trump above the Constitution.
Ramaswamy and Scott, meanwhile, used the discussion to attack prosecutors and the Department of Justice for “weaponizing” the law to go after a political opponent.
The exchange came about halfway through the two-hour debate, which opened with the candidates answering the initial questions with condensed versions of their stump speeches.
DeSantis, as the polling leader of those on stage, got the first question about the economy, and he responded with a tone of loud anger that he kept throughout the evening: “Our country is in decline. We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement.”
Ramaswamy quickly drew the ire of the others with facile answers and a blanket accusation that all but he was in the pocket of special interests. And Haley became the first to even mention Trump ― not about his numerous criminal charges but about increasing the national debt by $8 trillion.
The debate took place at Fiserv Forum, home of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team and site of the Republican National Committee’s nominating convention next summer.
Trump, under four separate criminal indictments that could send him to prison for decades, boycotted the event, claiming that he doesn’t need to debate because he is so far ahead in the polls. Instead, he taped an interview with conspiracy theorist and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson to be released as Fox News began its broadcast of the debate, while his campaign’s top officials and various other high-profile supporters attended to argue to reporters that Trump is the inevitable nominee.
Trump, Thursday evening, is planning to travel to the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta to be fingerprinted and photographed on his latest indictment, one from a Georgia grand jury for racketeering and other charges based on his attempt to coerce state officials into overturning his election loss there in 2020.
Wednesday night’s debate is the first in a series to take place about once a month, at least through December. The second is set for the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, at the end of September, and the third will be in Alabama one month later.
The party required candidates to receive contributions from at least 40,000 different donors to participate Wednesday, hit a 1% threshold in at least three national or early state polls and sign a pledge promising to support the eventual nominee, whoever it is.
Former Texas congressman Will Hurd refused to sign the pledge, giving up his opportunity to be on the stage ― even as RNC chair Ronna McDaniel reportedly traveled to Trump’s New Jersey country club to coax him into participating despite his repeated statements that he would not promise to support the eventual nominee. In 2015, Trump signed a similar pledge but later said he was no longer bound by it because the RNC had treated him unfairly.
Christie, for one, said he would sign the pledge with the intention of taking it exactly as seriously as Trump did in 2016. Pence signed it but, in interviews, has insisted he is confident that Republican primary voters would vote against Trump and make moot the question of supporting Trump again in the 2024 general election.
Hutchinson said Trump’s potentially ineligibility would override the pledge, based on his reading of RNC rules.
Others, like Ramaswamy and Scott, have signed it without misgivings about backing a man who tried to end American democracy by remaining in power despite losing his election.