Trump’s legal troubles anger some GOP voters. Still, it’s no sure bet they will back him in 2024
PELLA, Iowa (AP) — Kathleen Evenhouse took a break from her work in the corner of a small-town Iowa coffee shop to slam the federal criminal indictment of Donald Trump as patently political, the work of a U.S. Justice Department she says is awash in hypocrisy.
“I think we’re playing a game as a country,” the 72-year-old author from Pella said in an interview, expressing a sentiment widely shared among conservatives since the former president was charged. “I think that damages any sense of justice or any sense of — should I even bother to vote? Why should I listen to the news? Or why should I care?”
Evenhouse does plan to vote in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucuses next year. Despite her anger about Trump’s plight, he will not win her support.
Many voters in early states who will play an outsize role in deciding his political fate agree that he is being treated unfairly. While there is widespread distrust of the Justice Department and its pursuit of him on charges that he illegally stored classified documents and tried to hide them from federal officials, some voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina say Trump has become too damaged to be nominated by his party a third time.
“If you dig a hole and then you have to climb out, it’s going to be harder to do,” Evenhouse said. “And that’s where I think he is.”
Maintaining that Trump was unfairly targeted while other people who were found to have classified documents in their possession were treated differently requires the dismissal of key differences. Most notably, President Joe Biden, former Vice President Mike Pence and others cooperated with federal officials once documents were discovered in their possession. Trump, according to the 37-count indictment filed in federal court in Miami, ignored a federal subpoena and tried to deceive the Justice Department about what he had.
Resentment over his treatment has been nurtured not just by Trump but by some conservative commentators, Republicans in Congress and White House rivals. Republicans who acknowledge the different circumstances have kept a lower profile.
While the double-standard theory may have taken hold among GOP voters in the early states, it’s not clear that such outrage will translate into ballots cast for Trump when voting for president begins next year. It’s not so much that voters have lost affection for Trump, but that the turmoil has become too heavy a burden for some of them to feel he can win.
“Right now I am a Trump supporter,” said 76-year-old Karen Szelest of Indian Land, South Carolina. “However, I think they’re doing everything they can to have him not run for president of the United States. And I think perhaps, for the betterment of the country, I may vote for somebody else because they keep going after Trump, going after Trump, going after Trump.”
Last week marked a jarring point in the presidential campaign when the Justice Department moved forward with the indictment, a first for a former president, let alone one accused of mishandling top-secret information.
The indictment unsealed last week charged Trump with 37 felony counts — many under the Espionage Act — that accuse him of illegally storing classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and trying to hide them from investigators who demanded them back.
After entering his not guilty plea on Tuesday, Trump immediately returned to portraying himself as a victim of a politically driven department aimed at keeping him from returning to the presidency he wrongly claims was stolen from him in 2020.
Some of the roughly 20 early-state voters interviewed this past week spent most of the time railing against what they see as that department’s political agenda.
“It makes me sick that there seems to be completely different criteria for a conservative, and especially Donald Trump,” said Sue VanEe, a 68-year old retired farmer who was waiting for a friend at the same coffee shop where Evenhouse was writing. “Completely different. Like opposite.”
Biden has said he communicated with neither the Justice Department nor the special prosecutor on any aspect of the investigation before the indictment was unsealed.
Skepticism was pervasive among Republicans interviewed by The Associated Press after Trump appeared in federal court and, through his lawyers, entered not guilty pleas to all charges.
That mirrors a persistent split across party lines in how the case is viewed. An ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted last weekend found that Americans were more likely to say Trump should be charged in the documents case than those who say he should not, 48% to 35%. At the same time, 47% of adults believe the charges are politically motivated, compared with 37% who say they are not.
Most Republicans, however, said he should not be charged, and 80% of them believe the charges are politically motivated, according to the ABC poll.
As for the election, polls conducted over the last few months have consistently found Trump as the early front-runner on the Republican side.
Trump’s challenge will be maintaining that advantage as the legal cases against him proceed. His hope that they will work in his favor is bolstered by Republican-leaning voters such as Kelly White of Indian Land.
“It kind of makes me want to support him more,” she said.
Among the most common counterarguments, there are those people who play down the allegations Trump faces while also pointing to what they see as a double standard — one that has excused, for instance, the email server that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, kept in the basement of her private residence in New York.
Charges that she mishandled classified documents weren’t pursued by the Justice Department, in part because relevant Espionage Act cases brought over the past century involved alleged efforts to obstruct justice and willful mishandling of classified information. Those factors were not at play in her case, investigators concluded.
At a farmer’s market in Bedford, New Hampshire, Tom Zapora was chatting with friends and snacking on a “tornado potato,” a spiraled, fried potato on a skewer, shortly after Trump’s appearance in court.
“There’s a lot of things going on there, and in my humble opinion, the current president, past presidents, have done as much if not more wrong than he has and they’ve kind of slid under the radar,” said Zapora, a Republican who owns a moving company.
In Pella, a Dutch-themed community of about 10,000 people in Iowa’s Republican-heavy Marion County where Trump received two-thirds of the vote in 2020, the investigation was hardly the most pressing issue on the minds of voters at a campaign event Wednesday for one of Trump’s challengers, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. During a question-and-answer session, it took 40 minutes for the subject of the indictment to come up.
When it did, the questioner ignored the charges against Trump, asking instead about the fairness of the Justice Department.
Standing in the audience of about 200, 58-year-old engineer Gina Singer, who has been a devoted Trump supporter, said the indictment had become a distraction from the serious business of choosing a presidential nominee who can beat Biden next year.
Though she’s bothered by what she sees as a double standard, she is uncertain about whether Trump will be saddled with so much suspicion that she thinks a next-generation candidate may be what’s best for the party.
“I love everything he stands for and I want his policies to be enacted,” Singer said. “But they’ll just keep on going after him. So, I’m looking for someone else. Both things can be true.”
Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Bedford, New Hampshire, and video journalist Erik Verduzco in Indian Land, South Carolina, contributed to this report.