Republican lawmakers and presidential hopefuls have largely shied away from criticising Donald Trump after a jury found him liable for the sexual abuse of a journalist in the 1990s, in the latest sign of the former president’s grip on the party.
A nine-person jury on Tuesday unanimously found Trump liable for battery and defamation, while clearing him of a separate allegation of rape in a lawsuit brought by E Jean Carroll, a former advice columnist and television presenter.
The ruling marked a significant legal defeat for the former president, who is the frontrunner in an increasingly crowded field of Republicans vying to be their party’s nominee for the White House in 2024.
But the jury’s decision — coming six weeks after a Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records relating to payments made to a porn star — complicates his relationship with a Republican party establishment grappling with the possibility that he will be its standard bearer in next year’s presidential election.
A Real Clear Politics average of the latest opinion polls show Trump polling nearly 30 points ahead of his closest potential challenger, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, among the Republican grassroots.
DeSantis has yet to comment on Trump’s latest legal defeat, nor has Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN ambassador who was the first leading Republican to launch a bid to run against him. Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina who is expected to formally launch his own campaign this month, has also not commented.
Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice-president who broke with the president over the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and has yet to formally enter the race, sidestepped a question on the Carroll case on Tuesday. He told NBC News: “It’s just one more story, focusing on my former running mate that I know is a great fascination to members of the national media but I just don’t think it’s where the American people are focused.”
Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy, a fund manager who rails against what he calls “woke capitalism” and is also running for president, leapt to Trump’s defence, saying the ruling “seems like just another part of the establishment’s anaphylactic response against its chief political allergen: Donald Trump”. He added: “In America we don’t weaponise the law with decades-old allegations to eliminate our political opponents.”
One prominent Republican figure to directly criticise Trump was Asa Hutchinson, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, who called the former president’s actions “indefensible”.
Hutchinson has garnered the support of less than 1 per cent of the Republican electorate, according to the RCP polling average.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and one of the few Republicans willing to attack Trump, told Fox News Radio: “It is one person after another, one woman after another. The stories just continue to pile up. And I think we all know he’s not unlucky and that he engaged in this kind of conduct.”
The ruling in the Carroll case is the latest in a string of legal woes for the former president, who is also facing a criminal investigation in Fulton county, Georgia, relating to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. But Trump’s legal troubles have seemingly done little to dent his chances of securing his party’s nomination for the presidency next year, with his polling numbers climbing steadily.
On Capitol Hill, many Republican lawmakers have called for the party to distance itself from Trump, especially after many of his handpicked candidates failed at the ballot box in last year’s midterm elections, depriving the Republicans of a majority in the Senate and delivering only a razor-thin advantage in the House of Representatives.
But there have been signs in recent weeks that senators in particular are coming around to the idea of another Trump presidency. Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican who has locked horns with Trump and accused the former president of being “practically and morally responsible” for January 6 2021 Capitol attack, told CNN this week that he would “support the nominee of our party for president, no matter who that may be”.