Editor's note: This report has been updated to clarify that the indictment accuses former President Trump of showing a classified document about attacking Iran to a writer without security clearance.
Senate Republican leaders, including Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are staying quiet about former President Trump’s indictment on 37 criminal charges, letting him twist in the wind and breaking with House Republican leaders who have rushed to Trump’s defense.
McConnell, who is careful not to comment on Trump or even repeat his name in public, has said to his GOP colleagues that he wants his party to turn the page on the former president, whom he sees as a flawed general election candidate and a drag on Senate Republican candidates.
The Senate GOP leader’s top deputies — Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — have also indicated they don’t want Trump to win the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
They, along with McConnell, are letting Trump’s legal troubles unfold without coming to the former president’s defense, in contrast to Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), who both issued statements Thursday criticizing the Justice Department before the indictment was unsealed to the public.
“They want him to go away, so they wouldn’t be very upset if this is the thing that finally takes him out,” a former Senate Republican aide said about the Senate Republican leaders’ silence on Trump’s indictment.
Republican senators were more outspoken in defending Trump in April, after liberal Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg unveiled an indictment charging him with 34 felony counts related to business records fraud.
Even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to express confidence in Bragg when asked about him in late March.
Special prosecutor Jack Smith, whom Attorney General Merrick Garland tapped in November to investigate Trump, has more credibility among Republicans.
“Jack Smith is very credible,” said the former Senate GOP aide.
“There is the reflection that he may have actually found finally the silver bullet” to end Trump’s political career, the former aide said, noting that Smith has a tape of Trump acknowledging that he had retained classified documents after leaving office that he didn’t declassify while president.
A Senate Republican aide said the indictment is “pretty damning.”
“The documents that he did have, and who he was showing them to and where he was storing them, is all pretty damning,” the aide said. “I don’t know if it will make a difference in the political landscape, but it certainly seems pretty bad.”
The indictment accuses Trump of showing a classified document laying out the military strategy for an attack against Iran to a writer who didn’t have security clearance.
The former president also showed a sensitive military map to a staffer for his political action committee.
Photos included in the indictment showed that Trump haphazardly stashed boxes of sensitive materials around his residence at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, including in a ballroom, a bathroom, a shower, office space and his bedroom.
One photo showed documents scattered across the floor of a storage room.
Nevertheless, House Republican leaders are speaking out forcefully against the indictment.
“This is going to disrupt the nation because it goes to the core of equal justice for all, which is not being seen today. And we’re not going to stand for it,” McCarthy told Fox News in an interview Friday.
Scalise tweeted Thursday evening “this sham indictment is the continuation of the endless political persecution of Donald Trump.”
Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a one-time advisor to McConnell’s leadership team and whose home state will host the second contest of next year’s Republican presidential primary, said the Department of Justice’s indictment may prove too much for Trump to overcome.
“At some point there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back, and there’s a whole lot of straws on the back of Donald Trump right now,” he said.
Gregg called the legal problems facing Trump clearly “outside the norm for a major leader of our nation.”
A New York jury last month found Trump liable for sexual abuse and awarded his accuser, the writer E. Jean Carroll, a $5 million judgment.
“Most Republicans want somebody else, even Trump people want somebody else, because they want to win and they recognize Trump is incapable of winning a general election at this point,” Gregg said.
He said Senate Republican leaders should call on the GOP to move past the former president.
“I would be advising them to say, ‘Listen, we have to move on as a party. Let Donald Trump work through his legal issues, which are considerable, but we as a party need to move on, and let’s find ourselves a candidate for president who can win,’” he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Friday evening said the charges brought by the Department of Justice are “quite serious and cannot be casually dismissed.”
She said in a statement that “mishandling classified documents is a federal crime because it can expose national secrets, as well as the sources and methods they were obtained through.”
Murkowski, who voted to convict Trump on the impeachment charge of inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, joined fellow Republican Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in being the only two Republican senators to criticize Trump shortly after the indictment became public.
Romney, who voted twice to convict Trump on impeachment charges in 2020 and 2021, defended the Justice Department from criticisms voiced by other Republicans that it is acting unfairly.
“By all appearances, the Justice Department and special counsel have exercised due care, affording Mr. Trump the time and opportunity to avoid charges that would not generally have been afforded to others,” Romney said in a statement.
“Mr. Trump brought these charges upon himself by not only taking classified documents, but by refusing to simply return them when given numerous opportunities to do so,” he said.
Senate conservatives have come to Trump’s defense, notably Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
“The Biden administration’s actions can only be compared to the type of oppressive tactics routinely seen in nations such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which are absolutely alien and unacceptable in America,” Lee said in a statement. “It is an affront to our country’s glorious 246-year legacy of independence from tyranny, for the incumbent president of the United States to leverage the machinery of justice against a political rival.”
Cruz, speaking on his "The Verdict" podcast, called the indictment “an assault on democracy,” “garbage” and “a political attack from a thoroughly corrupted and weaponized Department of Justice.”
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the third-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership, who voted against the debt deal and is seen within the Senate GOP conference as someone who has tried to ally himself with its most conservative members, also criticized the indictment.
“This indictment certainly looks like an unequal application of justice,” he said in a statement, pointing out that “large amounts of classified materials were found in President Biden’s garage in Delaware” yet “no indictment.”
Yet many other Republican senators, particularly those more closely allied with McConnell, are staying conspicuously quiet about Trump’s legal travails.
One GOP senator who requested anonymity defended the Justice Department, pushing back on accusations that because Garland is a Biden appointee, the prosecution is necessarily motivated by politics.
“Where do you draw the line?” the senator said. “Everybody owes their job to someone.
“We have to trust our institutions, and there’s not a lot of trust right now,” the senator added.
Updated at 10:47 a.m. EDT.