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In New Hampshire, Trump's deepening legal challenges divide the GOP field

Vivek Ramaswamy in NH
Anthony Brooks
Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican candidate for president, during a campaign stop in Milford, New Hampshire. WBUR photo.

At the Grill 603 restaurant in Milford, New Hampshire, Vivek Ramaswamy delivered his pitch Thursday to a lunchtime crowd. The biotech entrepreneur, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, stood in front of a sign that outlined what he calls his core principals. They included "God is real," "There are two genders," and "Human flourishing requires fossil fuels."

Ramaswamy, 38, is a conservative running in his first political campaign. "We fight for the truth," he told an appreciative crowd.

Ramaswamy also has become one of Donald Trump's most ardent defenders, even as the former president faces his most serious criminal indictment yet and continues to lead the race for the GOP nomination.

"I do think that on this same set of facts, anyone not named Trump would not have been indicted," Ramaswamy said of the latest federal indictment from special counsel Jack Smith.

Trump pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday to charges of criminal conspiracy and obstruction in his efforts to upend the 2020 election. He still faces criminal charges in two other cases: for allegedly holding and concealing classified documents; and for allegedly falsifying business records to cover-up a hush money payment in New York.

Ramaswamy renewed a pledge that, if elected president, he would pardon Trump if the former president were to be convicted. "Criminalizing every bad judgment is a dangerous, slippery slope to go down in this country," he said.

Whether to support or criticize Donald Trump is a dividing line in the field of Republican presidential candidates — with some calling charges against the former President politically motivated and others urging him to quit the race.

On one side are Republicans like Ramaswamy, as well as the candidate who's running a distant second to Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"As President, I will end the weaponization of government, replace the FBI Director, and ensure a single standard of justice for all Americans," DeSantis tweeted shortly after news of the latest charges against Trump broke Tuesday — and before DeSantis had even read the indictment.

A number of other Republican presidential candidates have also been critical of the various legal cases against the former president, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as Trump's U.N. ambassador. Haley has called the New York case "political persecution," but more recently said the accumulating charges against Trump are becoming "a distraction."

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott has called the charges political, suggesting that the Biden Justice Department is going easy on Democrats like Hunter Biden, while dropping the hammer on Republicans like Trump. (The two federal cases against Trump have been brought by special counsel Jack Smith, who operates independently from the rest of the Justice Department.)

In contrast, there's a smaller group of Republicans who have become much harder on Trump. They include former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christy, who launched his long shot bid for the Republican nomination in June in New Hampshire and has made criticizing Trump the focus of his campaign. He says Trump "disgraced himself" by inciting the violent January 6th insurrection and “violated his oath and brought shame to his presidency.” Christy refutes claims by rivals that the two indictments brought by special counsel Jack Smith are politically motivated.

Another candidate who has been critical of the former president for some time is former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has called for Trump to abandon his quest to return to the White House.

“He does need to withdraw from the race," Hutchinson said on Wednesday, following a campaign appearance at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua.

Hutchinson said Trump bears responsibility for the deadly insurrection on January 6, 2022, and that "every Republican candidate for president needs to state clearly where they are on this."

"We need to side with the rule of law and accountability," Hutchinson said.

"I think there's more he could be charged with," said Kathy Holland of Sandown. "Where's there's this much smoke, there's a whole lot of fire."

Former Vice President Mike Pence has a more complicated, evolving position regarding his former boss. Last May, after a New York jury found Trump responsible for sexual assault against E. Jeanne Carroll, Pence declined to criticize Trump, telling WBUR he would leave that judgment to voters.

He later called federal charges that Trump illegally held on to classified documents "extremely divisive," but has taken a harder line on the most recent January 6th case, saying, "Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.” Pence is now a key witness in special counsel Jack Smith's case against Trump.

Meanwhile, despite his legal peril, Trump remains popular among most Republican voters in New Hampshire.

"Donald Trump did a lot of good in this country," said Matthew Coombes of Nashua, who called the various charges against the former president "political."

"I think it's wrong," Coombes said.

But Kathy Holland of Sandown, New Hampshire, who was at the Ramaswamy event in Milford on Thursday, had a different view of the former president.

"I think there's more he could be charged with," Holland said. "Where's there's this much smoke, there's a whole lot of fire."

Holland, who said she never supported Trump, added that she feels the same way about Hunter Biden, referring to concerns of many Republicans that President Biden's son was able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Ukrainian energy company — and claims that his father was in some way connected to the corruption. This has become a standard Republican talking point, though no credible evidence has emerged of any wrongdoing by President Biden.

Polls suggest that Trump remains the Republican front-runner in New Hampshire — and nationally — by far, despite the criminal charges he faces. In fact, the deeper his legal peril, the more his base appears to rally around him. Dave Carney, a New Hampshire Republican political strategist, said this presents an uphill climb for other Republicans in the field.

"Do you think any reporter is going to ask any presidential campaign in the next month about anything other than the Trump legal situation?" Carney asked. "It just reinforces the former president's message, and [the other candidates] never get a chance to put their elevator pitch out to voters."

According to Carney, the noise from the indictments — with more expected —presents an overwhelming challenge for any candidate not named Trump.

This story was originally published by WBUR. It was shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.