Trump’s top 2024 rivals tread lightly on sexual abuse verdict

The leading contenders for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination behind Donald Trump have thus far refrained from using his sexual abuse verdict against him.

On Tuesday, a Manhattan jury found the former president liable in a lawsuit from writer E. Jean Carroll that accused him of battery and defamation. He was found liable for sexual abuse but not rape, and Carroll was awarded $5 million in total damages.

Currently, national opinion polls place Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the second most favored GOP candidate for the 2024 ticket, though he lags significantly behind Trump. Meanwhile, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence are found to be neck and neck for third place in most polls.

When asked about Tuesday’s verdict, all three Republicans declined to attack Trump.

From left, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. DeSantis, Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence—the top GOP candidates for the 2024 nomination aside from Trump—have so far not attacked the former president on the E. Jean Carroll verdict.
Cheney Orr/AFP/Getty; Brandon Bell/Getty; Alex Wong/Getty

Pence, who has not announced that he is running in 2024, spoke with NBC News hours after the verdict and was asked if he felt Trump is unfit for the White House as a result of the jury’s decision.

“I think that’s a question for the American people,” Pence said. “I’m sure the president will defend himself in that matter.”

He then said that he feels voters in 2024 will likely care more about issues that directly affect them than the Carroll case.

“It’s just one more instance where—at a time when American families are struggling, when our economy is hurting, when the world seems to become a more dangerous place almost every day—[there’s] just one more story focusing on my former running mate that I know is a great fascination to members of the national media,” Pence said. “But I just don’t think is where the American people are focused,” Pence said.

On Wednesday, DeSantis—who also has not declared he is a 2024 candidate—was asked by a reporter about the sexual abuse verdict during an immigration event in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I’ve been pretty busy. I know there’s different stuff in the news, but we’ve been busy on Monday sticking it to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] so they’re not buying land in Florida,” DeSantis answered.

The governor then hinted that he may soon make an announcement about the 2024 presidential election.

“I may have something to say about the overall landscape for ’24, but stay tuned on that,” he said.

Haley, who launched her 2024 campaign in February, also declined to discuss the Carroll case.

Asked about the verdict during a Wednesday interview on radio’s Hugh Hewitt Show, she said:”I’m not going to get into that. That’s something for Trump to respond to. I think the focus has to be not to be distracted. That’s why we’ve got to leave the baggage and the negativity behind.”

Like Pence, the former South Carolina governor said Americans will be more concerned about issues other than the verdict. “We’ve got to focus on what people are talking about,” Haley said.

For his part, entrepreneur and Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy came to Trump’s defense after verdict was announced.

“I wasn’t one of the jurors and I’m not privy to all the facts that they have, but I’ll say what everyone else is privately thinking: If the defendant weren’t named Donald Trump, would there even be a lawsuit?” Ramaswamy said in a statement.

“I want to win this race by showing voters how I will take the America First movement beyond Trump,” he added. “I look forward to facing him on the debate stage.”

Asked why Trump’s rivals were not using the verdict as political ammunition, GOP strategist John Feehery told Newsweek that he feels it’s “mostly because it was a ridiculous case that only shows that people in New York really don’t like Donald Trump.”

Jay Townsend, a nonpartisan political consultant, told Newsweek that since the former president has a “lock on his piece of the electorate,” his opponents “fear criticizing Trump in any way shape for form.”

Townsend said that Trump, who was posting negative comments about DeSantis on Truth Social hours before the verdict was announced, “would not remain silent had one of the others just been hit with a $5 million dollar claim.”

The consultant also noted that Asa Hutchinson—a former governor of Arkansas who is also seeking the GOP nomination—has been bolder about expressing his thoughts on the verdict.

Speaking to Fox News Digital on Wednesday, Hutchinson called Trump’s alleged actions “unbecoming of somebody who wants to be president” and a “distraction that really hurts the Republican cause.”

Another person who didn’t hold back on Trump was Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor is rumored to be mulling a run for the GOP nomination, and he told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade during a Wednesday interview that he felt Trump’s “conduct is unacceptable for somebody that we call a leader.”

“His response yesterday to me was ridiculous, that he didn’t even know the woman [Carroll]. I mean, you know, how many coincidences are we going to have here with Donald Trump, Brian?” Christie said.

Though Trump did not address Christie’s criticism directly, he posted a link on Truth Social to a poll that found an overwhelming majority of Republican voters in New Jersey would pick Trump over Christie in a GOP presidential primary.

Newsweek reached out to representatives for Trump via email for comment.

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