(MILWAUKEE, Wisc.) — With a show of hands Wednesday night, most Republican presidential hopefuls indicated they would back Donald Trump even if he’s a convicted criminal.
Six candidates on the debate stage in Milwaukee raised their hands when asked if they would support Trump as the party’s nominee if he is found guilty in a court of law in one of the four cases against him.
The first hand to go in the air was that of Vivek Ramaswamy, who has promised to pardon Trump. He was soon followed by Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and Doug Burgum. Then Ron DeSantis and even Mike Pence.
The question came one day before Trump’s expected surrender in Georgia, where he and 18 other have been charged for alleged efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. Trump has denied any wrongdoing in the case.
On Thursday morning, in post-debate morning show appearances, some candidates were asked to explain.
Pence, who had challenged his rivals to say he did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, asserting Trump had “no right” to try to overturn it or ask Pence to “put him over the Constitution,” nevertheless told CNN he raised his hand in the spirit of the Republican National Committee’s loyalty pledge to support the GOP nominee.
That’s despite highlighting his rejection of Trump’s efforts as a main reason voters should support him.
“Well, look, every one of us on the stage signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee,” Pence said. “And, frankly, my hand was raised in that spirit, just in keeping my word,” Pence said. “But I really do believe more after last night that Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee.”
Haley on “Good Morning America” had a similar response when questioned repeatedly on by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos about why would she vote for a convicted felon to be president of the United States.
“Because I’m not comfortable with a President Kamala Harris,” she said, a reference to one of her frequently used campaign lines that a vote for aging President Joe Biden is really a vote for Harris.
“I don’t even think it’s going to get to the point that Donald Trump becomes president,” she continued. “I think that I’m going to be the nominee and I think that we are going to win.”
Both Haley and Pence stressed Trump, like any other defendant, should have a presumption of innocence.
“We’re going to let these court case play out. Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty,” she continued. “We’ll see what happens. If he’s guilty, he’ll have to deal with it.”
Burgum was asked to elaborate on why he’d back Trump if he’s found guilty of charges on “GMA3” Thursday.
Burgum called the raising-hand approach to questions “goofy” but said he’s ultimately going to back whoever becomes the nominee.
“But whether, you know, all all of the court proceedings, that’s going to be decided by the court and the voters are going to decide who is who’s president or not,” he said.
DeSantis, during an interview with Fox News on Thursday morning, was asked about the political impact of Trump’s impending arrest at Fulton County jail.
“You know, I don’t know. I think that we’re in a unique situation with all these cases,” the governor responded. “Hopefully, there’s no more, and we can just focus on the issues.”
He then pivoted to his campaign, saying he thinks his team will “continue to be making progress, and these early states, I think it’s going to be really positive for us, but you got to earn it. You’ve got to go out there and work hard to do it.”
Christie, who shook his hand in protest of those who said they’d support Trump even if convicted, said “telling the truth about Trump” was his “best moment” of the night.
The former New Jersey governor has made opposing Trump a centerpiece of his 2024 bid, saying during the debate Trump’s behavior was beneath the office of the presidency.
“If you’re unwilling to confront him when he’s not there, how the heck are you gonna be willing to confront them when he is?” Christie said during an appearance Thursday on CNN. “And I’m proud of the fact that I was the only one last night who was willing to do it repeatedly and directly.”
-ABC’s Libby Cathey, Nicholas Kerr, Hannah Demissie and Will McDuffie contributed to this report.
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