Donald Trump’s arraignment Tuesday drew a sharper line between allies of the former president willing to use the power of their office to defend him and Republican lawmakers who want to stay out of the way of a historic federal prosecution.
The dynamic played out in the Capitol as Trump pleaded not guilty in a Miami courthouse to 37 federal charges connected to storing classified documents at his private club, Mar-a-Lago. Republican allies of the former president have taken steps to retaliate for the investigation.
Ahead of that court hearing, Trump allies pushed to defund the special counsel leading the probe, force a floor vote to censure a Democratic lawmaker who led the first effort to impeach Trump and highlight contentions that the Justice Department has been “weaponized” in the prosecution of those involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
In one of the most prominent shows of support for Trump, Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance posted a video on social media Tuesday, with the Capitol Dome in the background, where he said he would put a hold on Justice Department nominees.
“I think that we have to grind this department to a halt until [Attorney General] Merrick Garland promises to do his job and stop going after his political opponents,” Vance said. “Donald Trump is just one, and the most recent, example of the fact that Merrick Garland uses his department for political purposes.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, has not publicly commented on the indictment and didn’t mention Trump or the charges in a floor speech Tuesday. He later declined to answer two questions from reporters related to the Trump indictment at a news conference.
“The Republican campaign for the nomination has already been going on for six months, it’s going to be going on for a year longer, and I’m just simply not going to comment on the candidates,” McConnell said. “We’ve got a bunch of them, and I’m just simply going to stay out of it.”
When Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer was asked if the Trump indictment was a headwind for the Republican effort to take back control of the chamber in the 2024 election, he replied: “No comment.”
Other actions from Republican lawmakers meld with conservative messaging that seeks to denigrate the Justice Department and arguments that the case is meant to tear down the top candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a hard-line Republican, said in a floor speech Monday that she’s writing an appropriations rider to defund John L. “Jack” Smith’s special counsel investigation.
That idea already ran into skeptics in the Senate. Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota referred to Greene’s rider as a “tit for tat.”
“We all acknowledge and recognize we’ve got to have [a] law enforcement agency. We’ve got to have a Department of Justice,” Thune said. “Clearly our job is to make sure that we’re doing the right oversight so that they are carrying out their responsibilities in a fair and evenhanded manner.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Justice Department funding, had a sharper rebuke. “Maybe we should defund Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Shaheen said.
First-term Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., picked Tuesday to call up a privileged resolution to censure California Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a frequent Trump critic, and fine him $16 million. In a floor speech, Luna alleged Schiff used “lies, misrepresentations and abuses of sensitive information” to target Trump.
The resolution states Schiff abused his position on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to deceive his colleagues and the public during an investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election.
Schiff served as manager for House Democrats’ first impeachment of Trump over allegations he withheld aid to Ukraine in exchange for political favors. He also served as a member of the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which ultimately referred Trump for federal criminal charges.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., tweeted that he supported Luna’s effort and would work with her to bring it to a vote on the floor soon.
Rep. Matt Gaetz held a field hearing Tuesday at the Capitol that touched on grievances about the treatment of defendants tied to the Jan. 6 attack.
Gaetz said Congress is moving forward in the appropriations process, where lawmakers will have to make decisions about the authorities of the Justice Department and the FBI. “And it is my hope that we get a more fulsome understanding of the events of Jan. 6th and the follow-on actions,” he said.
The tenor of the moves from Vance and others latched on to what Trump and his supporters said Tuesday. In a brief appearance at a restaurant in Miami after the arraignment, Trump said, “We have a country that is in decline like never before, and we are not going to let it happen.”
Speaking to Fox News outside the courthouse, Trump attorney Alina Habba, who was not representing Trump in the documents case, said she believed the prosecution to be political punishment of the former president.
“The targeting prosecution of a leading political opponent is the type of thing you see in dictatorships like Cuba and Venezuela,” Habba said.
Trump himself planned to speak about the indictment from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., in a prime-time address Tuesday evening.
Schumer declined to comment on the pledges by Vance or Greene to leverage Congress against Trump’s prosecutors. However, he did tell reporters he wouldn’t support any effort to retaliate against the probe.
“No one’s above the law, including Donald Trump. And there will be no political or ideological interference as the case moves forward,” Schumer said.
Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois also rejected any idea that Congress should play a role in overseeing the case.
“This idea that Congress is going to somehow insert itself into the courtroom is just plain wrong,” Durbin said. “We don’t do that in any case, and we shouldn’t do it in this situation.”
Yet Durbin and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal raised concerns that Trump’s case has been assigned to Judge Aileen Cannon, who was appointed by Trump and initially ruled in favor in the former president’s failed lawsuit to prevent the government from using evidence gathered in the search of Mar-a-Lago. A panel of judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed her ruling, and the case was eventually dismissed.
Durbin said he didn’t think there’s anything sinister about the case assignment and didn’t call for her recusal. But he said there is concern given how she was overruled at the appellate level.
Blumenthal said he would advise her to recuse from the case but that she can overcome any doubt about her record by being “fair, impartial and straightforward.”
“We have to presume she’ll do the right thing. We have to hope that she’ll be fair and impartial, but she has to overcome a presumption of some prejudice arising from her past,” Blumenthal said.