Chris Sununu now says Trump shouldn't drop out if convicted but stands by his past criticism

"For me, it's not solely about him," the New Hampshire governor said.

April 14, 2024, 2:32 PM

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu on Sunday reaffirmed his support for Donald Trump in the 2024 general election while standing by some -- but not all -- of his past criticism of the former president.

In an interview on ABC News' "This Week," Sununu, a Republican who endorsed former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley over Trump in the GOP primary, was repeatedly pressed by anchor George Stephanopoulos about his previous statements attacking the former president.

Sununu said he stood by a 2021 denunciation of Trump over Jan. 6 but said he no longer believes that Trump should leave the race if he is convicted in one of his four criminal cases. Trump denies all wrongdoing.

In a June 2023 CNN interview, when several Republicans were vying for the primary nomination against Trump, Sununu said that Trump should drop out of the presidential race if convicted of any of the charges he faces.

At the time of that interview, Trump had just been indicted over his alleged mishandling of classified documents while out of office and had already been indicted in a New York hush money case that is going to trial on Monday.

Since then, Trump has been indicted two more times -- in a federal case related to Jan. 6 and a Georgia case over his alleged behavior while trying to overturn his 2020 defeat.

After repeated questioning by Stephanopoulos on "This Week" on Sunday, Sununu adjusted his response compared to his answer last year.

"Previously, you've said these charges are serious and Trump should drop out of the race if he's convicted. Do you still believe that?" Stephanopoulos asked.

At first, Sununu said that Trump's legal issues were the very "chaos" that he had challenged during the GOP primary when he backed Haley.

When Stephanopoulos followed up again, Sununu said he no longer thinks Trump should end his campaign upon a conviction.

"No, no, no -- he's going to drop out after being the nominee? Of course, not. You know that's not to be expected at all," Sununu said.

"At the end of the day, they [people] want that culture change within the Republican Party. And if we have to have Trump as the standard-bearer -- and the voters decided that's what they wanted, not what I wanted ... If he's going to be the standard-bearer of that, we'll take it if we have to. That's how badly America wants a culture change," he said.

However, Sununu also said he "100%" still agrees with sharply worded criticism of Trump that he made days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. At the time, Sununu said, "President Trump's rhetoric and actions contributed to the insurrection."

"His actions absolutely contributed to that," Sununu said on Sunday. "There's no question about that. I hate the election denialism of 2020. Nobody wants to be talking about that in 2024. I think all of that was absolutely terrible."

But he said that backing Trump, who continues to falsely claim he won the 2020 election, was about more than just Trump and argued that many Americans agree that "change" is needed in the federal government.

In this April 25, 2023, file photo, Chris Sununu speaks onstage at the 2023 TIME100 Summit at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME, FILE

"Liberal elites in Washington want to stand on the shoulders of hardworking American families that built this country, defended this country and tell them how to live their lives. They're angry. They're upset. That's the culture change that people want to see," the governor said.

"People are upset by Jan. 6," he added. "They're upset by the election denial. They have every right to be -- I am -- but at the end of the day, they need a culture change to get America back on track."

Stephanopoulos pressed: "Please explain, given the fact that you believe he contributed to an insurrection, how you can say we should have him back in the Oval Office?"

"For me, it's not solely about him; it's about maintaining a Republican administration, Republican secretaries and Republican rules that prioritize states' rights, individual rights and parents' rights," Sununu said.

"We're going to have a pro-business economy. We're not going to have a cancel culture that has really infiltrated all across America. It's not about Trump with me," Sununu insisted.

Sununu cited Trump's continued, widespread support among Republicans and early polling that shows him sometimes beating President Joe Biden in the general election, though Sununu exaggerated how high Trump's numbers usually are, according to polls tracked by 538.

"They're not crazy. They're not MAGA conservatives. They're not extremists. They want culture change," Sununu said.

"I'm not talking about polls," Stephanopoulos pressed. "I'm asking you a very simple question. ... You believe that a president who contributed to an insurrection should be president again?"

Sununu answered: "As does 51% of America, George."

He went on to say that "it's about understanding inflation is crushing families. It's understanding that this border issue is not a Texas issue. It's a 50-state issue, right, that has to be brought under control. It's about that type of elitism that the average American is just sick and tired of."

Meanwhile, Sununu contended that Trump's pending trials have become akin to reality TV for "the average American."

While he's previously said he believes the New York case is political (which prosecutors deny), Sununu said last year that the classified documents charges against Trump were "obviously very severe" and "self-inflicted" and similarly called the federal election case against Trump "extremely severe."

Stephanopoulos pushed for an answer: "You're comfortable with the idea of supporting someone who's convicted of a federal crime as president?"

"No -- I don't think any American is comfortable with any of this, they don't like any of this, of course," Sununu said.

Despite polling also showing that many voters would be turned off by Trump being convicted of a felony, Sununu emphasized his view that "right now this is about an election."

"This is about politics. That's what people are judging this on," he said. "And the ultimate decision will be in November to see where people stand."