When future historians seek to explain how a failed businessman and reality TV star took over the Republican Party and held it in his grip for nearly a decade, the events of May 9, 2023, would serve as a useful starting point.
On that day, a jury found Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll, and awarded her $5 million in compensatory damages. As a general rule, if a presidential candidate were found liable in a court of law for sexual abuse, it would sound the death knell for their campaign. But as we’ve learned — painful reminder after painful reminder — when it comes to Trump and Republican voters, general rules don’t apply.
At the very least, one might expect that other candidates for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination would criticize the race’s front-runner. Maybe they’d point out that a man repeatedly accused of sexually assaulting women — and now found liable for doing so by a civil jury — is not the best choice to lead the party in the next presidential election. Instead, Republican presidential nominees only offered silence — or, even more bizarrely, defenses of Trump. If they won’t attack him for this, will they ever?
When asked about the Carroll verdict, DeSantis responded: “I’ve been pretty busy."
Former Vice President Mike Pence told NBC News that “in my 4½ years serving alongside the president, I never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature.” It was a notably different tone from Pence's remarks in October 2016, when the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released. “As a husband and father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump,” Trump’s running mate said at the time, even canceling a campaign appearance. “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them.”
For those who memory-holed Trump’s comments in the tape, he boasted about grabbing women “by the p----.” Not only is that behavior remarkably similar to Carroll’s allegations, the former president (who in 2016 apologized for his words and pledged to “be a better man”) defended those comments in a deposition for Carroll’s lawsuit.
Pence, who usually leaps at every chance to talk about morality in politics, shirked the opportunity to criticize Trump. “I think that’s a question for the American people,” he said instead. “I’m sure the president will defend himself in that matter.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur who has never held elected office but is ahead of Pence in some recent polls of GOP voters, said, "I'll say what everyone else is privately thinking: If the defendant weren’t named Donald Trump, would there even be a lawsuit?” Ramaswamy added that “this seems like just another part of the establishment’s anaphylactic response against its chief political allergen: Donald Trump.” Those words are so pro-Trump that it’s as if the former president had written them himself.
What about Trump’s chief rival, Ron DeSantis? After all, Florida’s governor cultivates a combative reputation. A recent ad from a pro-DeSantis SuperPAC called him a “conservative warrior … who never backs down,” who “stood up to Dr. Fauci when others stood aside,” and who “refused to let Walt Disney push us around.”
But when asked about the Carroll verdict, DeSantis responded: “I’ve been pretty busy."
We’ve seen this fecklessness for more than seven years. But it’s still shocking.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley similarly dodged, saying in a radio interview that she’s “not going to get into” discussing the verdict. The one exception in the GOP presidential field was former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison, who said the Carroll verdict is “another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump.” (Unsurprisingly Hutchison is currently polling at around 1 percent among Republican voters.)
On Capitol Hill, with the laudatory exception of Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Republicans refused to publicly condemn Trump, though few went quite as far as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who called the jury a “joke,” or Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who said the verdict “makes me want to vote for him [Trump] twice.”
We’ve seen this fecklessness for more than seven years. But it’s still shocking. Put aside the moral and ethical shortcomings of GOP leaders in not only minimizing sexual assault but rejecting a jury verdict because they don’t like the outcome, what about the politics of the situation?
Over and over, we hear that Republicans believe Trump damages the GOP’s national brand and that nominating the former president again is the best way to keep Joe Biden in the White House for four more years. Surely, at a time when women voters are abandoning the GOP en masse, having a party standard bearer found liable for sexual abuse won’t help the party recapture those voters — or the presidency. And yet, when given the opportunity to take on Trump, Republicans constantly walk away from the battlefield — even those who are his direct rivals for the party’s presidential nomination.
Clearly, none of Trump’s rivals want to risk alienating Trump’s fervent supporters, but how do DeSantis, Haley, Pence and Ramaswamy hope to defeat the former president in a head-to-head matchup if they won’t even challenge him? For a party dominated by an alpha-male culture in which demonstrations of strength and resoluteness are pro forma, refusing to engage Trump is tantamount to surrender. Their refusal to challenge Trump signals to his supporters — and the larger electorate — that they lack the courage of their convictions and toughness to handle what is arguably the most difficult job in the world.
Certainly, one can be sure that if any of his rivals were found liable for sexual abuse, Trump would be the first to attack them. In fact, he’s already pushed unsubstantiated allegations that, as a private school teacher, DeSantis was “grooming high school girls with alcohol”
Perhaps Republicans hope that the accumulation of anti-Trump stories or legal losses will dim his support in the party, but how has that worked out so far? Others seem to cling to a morbid hope that Trump will disappear from the national political stage … er, permanently. But that’s more a prayer than a strategy. If Republicans want to rid themselves of Trump, they need to grow a backbone and actually call out his litany of offenses. If they won’t, why bother running for president?