A New York jury’s finding on Tuesday that Donald Trump was liable for sexually abusing the writer E. Jean Carroll in the 1990s and then defaming her is rekindling debate within the Republican Party about the former president’s electability as he consolidates an early polling lead for the 2024 nomination.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who hasn’t endorsed anyone in the GOP primary, said Tuesday that “a verdict like this doesn’t put a checkbox in the positive category” and suggested it would “for sure” be a liability in a general election.
“His first go-around, there were a lot of swing-type voters who were open to the opportunity and I think a lot of those voters abandoned him in the second go-around and this reminds them of why,” Cramer said.
In contrast to the almost uniform support for Trump in response to his indictment in a hush-money scheme, which was unsealed last month (Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts), several of Trump’s current and prospective GOP rivals were quiet on the verdict on Tuesday. Among those who did respond, the reaction was mixed.
“I would tell you, in my four and a half years serving alongside the president, I never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature,” said former vice president Mike Pence in an interview with NBC News. Pence, who has made moves toward entering the race, did not directly address the effect of the verdict on his view of Trump’s fitness to be president, saying, “I think that’s a question for the American people.”
Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley also dodged a question from conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, saying “I’m not going to get into that. That’s something for Trump to respond to.” Among those who did weigh in, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who recently entered the race, called Tuesday’s verdict “another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump.” And former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who is considering another White House bid, said the long list of sexual misconduct allegations against Trump discredits his insistence that they’re all made up.
“It is one person after another, one woman after another,” Christie said in a Fox News interview. “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.’
While statements flooded in after the indictment from many Republicans casting Trump as the target of a political attack, some in the party are now voicing misgivings about the potential political damage from the Carroll case.
“It has a cumulative effect,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, said of Trump’s legal pileup on Tuesday. “People are going to have to decide whether they want to deal with all the drama.”
Ongoing investigations involving Donald Trump
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Tuesday’s reactions reflected the political uncertainty surrounding Trump’s bid for another White House term, as he faces intensifying legal peril. Although he has built a wide polling lead in the Republican primary and support for him in some ways hardened after his indictment, Trump faces multiple ongoing criminal investigations at different stages.
An Atlanta-area district attorney is considering charging Trump and allies over pressuring state officials to change the 2020 election results there, and a federal special counsel, Jack Smith, is investigating efforts to overturn the election and raise money off false claims of election fraud, as well as the mishandling of classified materials. Trump’s company also faces a civil case from the New York attorney general alleging fraudulent business practices.
When it comes to the case involving Carroll, opponents in both parties are already discussing how the verdict and clips from Trump’s deposition could turn into potent campaign attack ads. Democrats said the jury’s finding could worsen Trump’s standing with women, but some Republicans, including those aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), cautioned that disapproval of Trump’s personal conduct is already baked in for many voters.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a close McConnell ally, expressed doubt that Trump could win a general election but predicted the verdict wouldn’t have an impact, given the strong opinions voters already have about Trump.
Trump’s Republican rivals have been searching for lines of attack that could prove effective against the former president, who remains overwhelmingly popular within the party. His foremost rival for the nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has mostly avoided criticizing Trump head-on as he prepares to officially launch his campaign in the coming weeks. DeSantis and his allies have touted his landslide reelection win last fall, signaling an intent to make electability a selling point.
The Trump campaign has already poll-tested many of the allegations against him among Republican primary voters, and found they did not move the needle, and that Republican primary voters generally did not believe the allegations, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal data and strategy.
Trump’s advisers have long viewed his challenges with winning over female voters with college degrees as a significant problem, but much of his strategy so far has centered on vanquishing Republican rivals in a primary, not winning a general election.
“We’re going to be very aggressive in attacking this verdict,” one of the advisers said. “We’re going to lay out pieces of evidence and the story that the judge did not necessarily allow in the courtroom.”
The adviser added that as the campaign remains focused on Republican primary voters, “My gut assessment is this won’t be that big of a deal.”
Trump on Tuesday struck a defiant tone, as he has in the face of other legal setbacks. “THIS VERDICT IS A DISGRACE – A CONTINUATION OF THE GREATEST WITCH HUNT OF ALL TIME!” he said on his Truth Social website.
In a recent focus group conducted by the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project with two-time Trump voters without college degrees, only one of seven participants said she was familiar with the trial. “It happened a couple years ago and the witnesses are her two friends,” the participant, a woman named Chandra from Florida, said. “It’s kind of stupid.”
Trump already lags with female voters, contributing to his narrow defeat in battleground states that decided the electoral college in 2020. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, women split 44 percent for President Biden and 41 percent for Trump, while Trump led 48 percent to 31 percent with men. The gender gap was similar in a matchup between Biden and DeSantis.
“Just about everyone has made up their mind about Donald Trump, and some Republicans are absolutely determined to ignore absolutely everything he says or does, no matter how egregious,” Republican consultant and pollster Frank Luntz said. “Where this comes into play and where it is important is a critical swing group: women with kids in suburban areas who are economically conservative and socially moderate, but you won’t hear a peep from them until November.”
The Republican voices lamenting Tuesday’s verdict came nowhere close to approaching the full-on panic that followed the publication in 2016 of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump bragged about unwanted sexual advances. In a deposition made public as part of the Carroll trial, Trump defended his remarks on the earlier recording that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything, grab them by the p—y.”
“If you look over the last million years, I guess, that’s been largely true,” Trump said in the deposition, which was videotaped. “Not always but largely, true. Unfortunately or fortunately.”
The Trump adviser described him as angered by the verdict as he huddled with aides on Tuesday afternoon. In social media posts, he denied knowing Carroll. His legal team has said they plan to appeal the verdict, and Trump’s campaign released a lengthy statement attacking Carroll, her lawyer, the judge and the evidence.
In private, Trump has dismissed Carroll as “Ms. Bergdorf,” referring to the Bergdorf Goodman department store where she said Trump attacked her. Trump also said he would not have assaulted her because she was too old — and that if he had, it would not have been in a department store dressing room but instead at one of his own properties.
The Trump campaign declined to comment on those remarks.
Trump’s supporters on Capitol Hill reiterated their defense of the former president on Tuesday. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who has endorsed Trump, described the verdict as “yet another act in the ongoing legal circus in Manhattan to take down Donald Trump.” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) quipped: “I think you could convict Donald Trump of kidnapping Lindbergh’s baby.”
The Carroll verdict could further complicate Trump’s legal woes by deterring some attorneys from working for him, according to a person in Trump’s orbit who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid about Trump’s legal challenges.
“Beating up on a rape victim for not screaming doesn’t work,” the person said. “The outcome is unfortunate, predictable and entire avoidable. Does it have any direct effect on other cases? Not really. But it certainly doesn’t help,” this person said.
Advisers and lawyers did not want Trump to testify and were caught off guard when he recently said he was going to New York while swarmed by reporters on his golf course in Scotland. There were never plans for him to go to New York, advisers said. He falsely said on Truth Social that he could not testify; Trump attorney Joe Tacopina said in court that his client waived his right to testify.
“The fact that someone assaulted a woman in that way is reprehensible,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who voted to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection in the 2021 impeachment trial, said Tuesday of the Carroll verdict. “Would you want it done to your spouse? To your sister? To your mother? So I hope it’s a consideration.”
Trump is scheduled to participate in a CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday. A close adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations, said he was committed to the town hall “100%” and was filming policy and fundraising videos at his club Tuesday night.
Michael Scherer, Paul Kane and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.