Rival GOP campaigns throw their hands up at Trump indictment

Trump is facing 91 charges across four indictments.

August 16, 2023, 5:34 PM

Normally, four-time indicted politicians would have their presidential ambitions dashed, not boosted. But former President Donald Trump is no traditional politician -- and rival campaigns are making their peace with that.

Conversations with a half-dozen Republican operatives working with rival campaigns showed they didn't expect Trump to take any substantial hit in the primaries from Monday night's bombshell indictment in Georgia, throwing their hands up in the air as they scramble to find an argument that could do what four indictments, two impeachments, electoral disappointments and an insurrection have failed to do -- dent Trump's status as de facto GOP leader.

"Trump will see a significant fundraising bump," conceded one strategist working on a rival campaign who, like others, spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity. "While more money will be coming in, more of it will pour into his legal fees. More pertinent to the election, with every indictment, his legal situation becomes more perilous, while at the same time further solidifying his guarantee of clinching the nomination."

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' sprawling indictment -- which hits Trump and 18 co-defendants with charges as part of an alleged criminal conspiracy -- marks the latest and most expansive legal challenge Trump faces to date. Willis' reliance on racketeering charges under Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act means that she will have powers that broadly mirror those afforded under the federal RICO Act with notable changes that broaden state prosecutors' ability to charge defendants, according to multiple legal experts who spoke with ABC News. The fact that they are state charges would mean Trump couldn't pardon himself if he won another term.

The Monday indictment brings the total charges Trump is facing from all four cases up to 91 -- but Republicans actively working to keep Trump from winning the nomination appeared to be talking about a runaway train, referencing the gains the former president enjoyed after previous indictments.

When asked whether there's anything any candidate can do to gain the massive amount of ground needed to leapfrog Trump in primary polls, another GOP operative backing a rival replied, "I don't think so."

"This presidential primary is controlled by Trump's actions, and it's clearly highlighted by the response to all these indictments," the person said.

Other strategists were less convinced that Trump would be able to defy political gravity forever, forecasting that the accumulation of the indictments would ultimately hurt him. But they didn't indicate that other candidates could expedite that fall back to earth or whether it would happen before the primaries are over.

"This will be the same as the other indictments regarding the politics, meaning a polling and fundraising plus. But this one seems more ominous on the legal jeopardy front. I am worried that this one might be the one that really hurts" in the general, said one lobbyist backing a Trump rival.

"I don't know that the fourth one will change the dynamics since Trump has pretty skillfully tried to play the victim really well and turned this into something that galvanizes his supporters," added Mike DuHaime, an adviser to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "All this is gonna continue to weigh him down. He's been pretty skillful to this point, but I do think the weight will eventually get to him. Hopefully for the party, it happens before the primary, not after."

Outside GOP strategists suggested a fruitful avenue for Trump's primary opponents would be to elevate concerns over whether the indictments impact Trump's electability in a general election rather than the merits of any indictment itself.

"I do think they need to find ways to talk more about the fact that Trump's unelectable and that it's a risk," said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman, who said Republican messaging on electability has been inconsistent.

However, Stutzman said it is difficult to message against Trump, who maintains his vicelike grip on broad swaths of the GOP primary electorate that bristle when he comes under attack.

"I think they're going to wait until they see focus groups and polling that suggest there's a way to talk to voters about it," he told ABC News.

"Talking heads on cable TV sanctimoniously wagging fingers at candidates that they need to be taking a stand, well, it's easy for them to do," he added. "I mean, these candidates are trying to get elected. At the end of the day, they're reflecting the Republican electorate, not leading the Republican electorate anywhere. And you have to give them some time and space to maneuver through this."

Yet even if other candidates land on a messaging strategy that could hypothetically pierce Trump's armor, it's unclear whether that message could even get through.

No matter how many are announced, Trump's indictments draw eyeballs, and news outlets have provided extensive coverage, including in some cases wall-to-wall airtime of Trump's motorcades arriving to and departing from airports and courthouses on days when he stands before a judge. And with no other candidate in the race boasting the platform that Trump does, getting the same attention as the former president is an inordinately difficult task.

"That is a huge dilemma," veteran New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Dave Carney told ABC News. "Who the hell's gonna listen? Because you and your cohorts are going to talk about Trump forever until he's either guilty in jail or is free."

Carney said the deluge of coverage of Trump's legal woes puts an even higher premium on candidates pressing the flesh in states like Iowa and New Hampshire -- though even that may not be a panacea for rival candidates' struggles to break through.

"I'm sure a lot of bourbon has been drunk around the bars, all talking about what the f--- to do," Carney said.

ABC News' Peter Charalambous contributed to this report.