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Republican 2024 hopefuls are reining in their Trump criticism

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Most leaders of the Republican Party have rallied around former President Donald Trump after he was charged with crimes related to the mishandling of national secrets. But some of Trump's rivals for the Republican nomination for president have taken veiled jabs at the frontrunner.

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MIKE PENCE: If these materials had ever inadvertently made their way in the hands of foreign interests, it would jeopardize the security of our country.

KHALID: That voice was former Vice President Mike Pence speaking with The Wall Street Journal editorial board. His comments were not a direct rebuke, but they were a sign of a new openness to criticizing Trump and a sign of how difficult it is to do that. NPR's Franco Ordoñez has more.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Tim Scott was one of the first who nodded to Trump's indictment during a campaign stop in Spartanburg, S.C. He wasn't the only one.

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TIM SCOTT: This case is a serious case with serious allegations.

NIKKI HALEY: If this indictment is true, if what it says is actually the case, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national...

PENCE: I think this is a time where as Americans, we ought to hew to our roots, to our commitment to the rule of law. I also...

ORDOÑEZ: That was, Scott Nikki Haley on Fox News and Mike Pence on CNBC as part of a media tour where he raised concerns. It's a clear example of the balancing act Republicans are trying to walk, suggesting Trump did something wrong and, at the same time, echoing Trump's complaints of a weaponized Justice Department that targets conservatives.

ALEX CONANT: It's a recognition that the field is getting serious.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Alex Conant. He's a Republican strategist who helped lead Senator Marco Rubio's presidential campaign in 2016. While the primaries are not until next year, Conant says we're now in the middle of the so-called invisible primaries, which is all about fundraising, building staff and appealing to base voters. And he says rivals can't make the same mistake they did seven years ago and wait too long to confront Trump.

CONANT: I think the candidates have learned the lessons of 2016, which is that Trump is not going to beat himself. You can't just leave Trump alone and assume that voters are going to make a different decision.

ORDOÑEZ: One reason is because Trump appears to be getting more popular, at least among Republicans. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds that after the federal indictment, Trump has only strengthened his hold on Republican voters. More than 3 out of 5 of those voters now say Trump is their first choice in the primaries.

HOGAN GIDLEY: It's unwavering, and if you attack Donald Trump, you run the risk of alienating that base you yourself would need to not just win the nomination but win the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: Hogan Gidley is a former White House spokesman who still speaks regularly with Trump. He warns other candidates against trying to take advantage of the moment and attack Trump when he could be vulnerable.

GIDLEY: No one one's a better counterpuncher than Donald Trump. And if you come at him, we have seen this time and time again that he will destroy you.

ORDOÑEZ: All of this is why Republican hopefuls are trying to be careful. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump's closest rival, came to his defense. And a day after calling Trump reckless, Haley backpedaled. She went on conservative radio and said she would be inclined to pardon Trump if he's convicted.

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HALEY: You know, when you look at a pardon, the issue is less about guilt and more about what's good for the country. And I think it would be terrible for the country to have a former president in prison for years because of a documents case.

ORDOÑEZ: Conant says they're running out of time to distinguish themselves. They need to show why they're a better candidate than Trump.

CONANT: The truth is, sure, if you attack Trump, he's going to attack you back. But if you also show momentum, he's going to attack you.

ORDOÑEZ: Either way, he says, the only way to win is to take on Trump. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.