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6 of 8 GOP Candidates Vow to Back Trump as Party’s Nominee Even If He Is Convicted

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We feature highlights on climate change, foreign policy and Trump from the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 race and speak with John Nichols, The Nation's national affairs correspondent. We also look at how former president and front-runner Donald Trump refused to attend the debate ahead of turning himself in at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia, to face racketeering charges for running a criminal enterprise with 18 co-defendants to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. The debate felt like “an argument at the kids' table on Thanksgiving rather than a classic political debate,” says Nichols, who says candidates were attempting to become Trump’s vice president or project themselves as leaders in a post-Trump Republican Party.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 race. Eight candidates gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a debate hosted by Fox News. But the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, refused to attend, opting to do a sit-down interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson.

Later today, Trump will turn himself in at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia, to face racketeering charges for running a criminal enterprise with 18 co-defendants to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. Nine of his co-defendants have already turned themselves in, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, who peddled pro-Trump election conspiracy theories.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s indictments was one of the main issues — well, one of many issues — I won’t say “main” — raised during the debate, which saw eight candidates on stage: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — also she was the South Carolina governor — the 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. The Republican candidates were asked about Trump’s indictment during the debate by Fox News moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier.

BRET BAIER: We are going to take a brief moment and talk about the elephant not in the room.

MARTHA MacCALLUM: Former President Trump has been indicted in four different states on 91 counts. He will be processed tomorrow in Georgia at the Fulton County Jail for charges relating to the 2020 election loss.

BRET BAIER: You all signed a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee. If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice? Please raise your hand if you would.

AMY GOODMAN: Six of the eight candidates raised their hand.

BRET BAIER: Just hold on. To just be clear, Governor Christie, you were kind of late to the game there, but you raised your hand?

CHRIS CHRISTIE: No, no, I’m doing this. Look, look, I’m doing this, not this.

BRET BAIER: And I know you didn’t.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: No. And look, would — here’s the bottom line: Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct. OK? Now — and now, whether or not — whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States. And — and, you know, this is the great thing about this country: Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth. It doesn’t change the truth.

BRET BAIER: Mr. Ramaswamy, you raised your hand, supporting.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: I’d like to get in and respond. Let’s just speak the truth, OK? President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact. And Chris Christie, honest to God, your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance against one man. And if people at home want to see a bunch of people blindly bashing Donald Trump without an iota of vision for this country, they could just change the channel to MSNBC right now. But I’m not running for president of MSNBC. I am running for president of the United States. We’re skating on thin ice, and we cannot set a precedent where the party in power uses police force to indict its political opponents. It is wrong. We have to end the weaponization of justice in this country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at last night’s Republican presidential debate. He went on to question former Vice President Mike Pence.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Well, Mike, why don’t you say this? Join me —

MIKE PENCE: Yes.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: — in making a commitment —

MARTHA MacCALLUM: Hold on.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: — that on day one, you would pardon Donald Trump. I’m the only candidate on the stage who had the courage to actually say it. That is how we move our nation forward —

MIKE PENCE: I don’t know why you assume —

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: — and turn the page forward. That’s exactly right.

MIKE PENCE: — that Donald Trump will be convicted of these crimes.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: You can make — be able to make a commitment, the same justice system that was this corrupt —

MIKE PENCE: That’s the difference between you and me. I’ve actually —

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Yeah, I’m not a professional politician — that’s the difference — who can answer a question.

MIKE PENCE: I’ve actually — I’ve actually given pardons when I was governor of the state of Indiana. It usually follows a finding of guilt and contrition by the individual that’s been convicted. So, we’ll — if I’m president of the United States, we’ll give fair consideration in any pardon requests. But if I may…

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Vice President Mike Pence went on to defend his actions on January 6, 2021.

MIKE PENCE: Look, I’ve made it clear: I had hoped that the issues surrounding the 2020 election and the controversies around January 6th had not come to this, had not come to criminal proceedings. I would rather they had been resolved by the American people, and the American people alone. But no one is above the law, and President Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence that every American is entitled to. And we will make sure and extend that to him. But the American people deserve to know that the president asked me, in his request that I reject or return votes unilaterally, power that no vice president in American history had ever exercised or taken — he asked me to put him over the Constitution. And I chose the Constitution, and I always will. I had no right —

BRET BAIER: Vice President Pence?

MIKE PENCE: — to overturn the election. And Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Vice President Mike Pence at Wednesday’s Republican debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

We’re going now to Madison, Wisconsin, where we’re joined by John Nichols, The Nation’s national affairs correspondent. His latest piece is “The Party of the Big Lie, and the Even Bigger Lie.”

You were in Milwaukee last night, John. Talk about the significance of this first Republican primary debate, without the absolute front-runner, so far ahead he leaves everyone behind him, but then what took place as people clearly did not take Trump on. When asked that key question, “If convicted, would you support him?” six of the eight candidates did. Just lay out the scene for us.

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. The scene is defined by Donald Trump. And I think that what happened last night was further evidence that the Republican Party has become the party of Trump. So, you have eight people on stage who all would like to be the Republican nominee, but, in many senses, this was a gathering of the people who are almost certain not to be the Republican nominee. The polls in favor of Trump are overwhelming. He leads the next closest candidate, Ron DeSantis, by the better part of 40 points, and the others are generally in single digits.

So, what you ended up with here was a sort of surreal debate in which candidates went after one another quite aggressively. In fact, at several points, it was very chaotic. But, in many senses, it was like an argument at the kids’ table on Thanksgiving rather than a classic political debate. And you did see a lot of desperation on the part of these candidates to make their name, to use this moment to get at least into the public mind as the clear alternative to Trump. What was interesting is that while — certainly, Vivek Ramaswamy did quite well at that, I think. I think he said many of the most outrageous things and the most aggressive things, and I think he came across as a very strong communicator. He often had the crowd on his side, although not always.

But what was striking was, I think, a couple of other things — the desperation of Mike Pence. Pence seemed to, at every turn, be trying to hog the mic, to get as much time as he could. But it never quite worked, and he was often called out by other candidates. Another notable thing was that Ron DeSantis really didn’t define himself very well in this debate. He tended to repeat his, you know, campaign trail punchlines and talking points, but he never really had a breakout moment. If there was a breakout moment for anybody, it might have been Nikki Haley dressing Ron DeSantis down for some of his statements on foreign policy.

But at the end of the day, the reality was summed up by that question about Trump and whether they would, you know, support him. By and large, they said they would — in fact, in some cases, aggressively suggesting they would. And that created the sense here that these candidates are really divided into two camps: one, people who appear, in the case of Ramaswamy as an example, to be trying to be Trump’s vice-presidential nominee, or at least might be interested in that prospect, and in another camp that seems to be trying to make its name for a post-Trump moment, and that would be especially Christie.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Asa Hutchinson. Now, he is way, way —

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — way behind in the polls, the former Arkansas governor, who is not supporting Trump. But he raised a very interesting issue that is being written about extensively by more and more conservative legal scholars. This is Hutchinson.

ASA HUTCHINSON: I did not raise my hand, because there’s an important issue we, as a party, have to face. And over a year ago, I said that Donald Trump was morally disqualified from being president again as a result of what happened on January 6th. More people are understanding the importance of that, including conservative legal scholars, who says he may be disqualified under the 14th Amendment from being president again as a result of the insurrection. This is something that could disqualify him under our rules and under the Constitution. And so, obviously, I’m not going to support somebody who’s been convicted of a serious felony or who is disqualified under our Constitution. And that’s consistent with RNC rules.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. There were 4,000 people in the audience. You can hear him being roundly booed. But you’ve written extensively about the 14th Amendment. Again, increasingly, conservative legal scholars are also writing about this. Explain.

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. The 14th Amendment, Section 3, which is a post-Civil War section, a post-Civil War amendment, deals with people who foment insurrection, people who swear an oath to the United States and then, in a position of power, take actions that might upend the government, might in some way cause a political crisis of the sort that we saw certainly during the Civil War and that many people believe we saw more recently with Trump’s efforts to overturn the election — certainly different actions, by any measure, but yet, at the end of the day, a failure to abide by an oath to follow the basic strictures of the Constitution.

And the people who have been talking about 14.3 have generally been on the left. People like John Bonifaz and other constitutional lawyers have brought it up many times. But in recent months, you have seen conservative legal scholars, and even some conservative activists, bring this issue up.

And it is a legitimate issue, a complex one, because the Constitution doesn’t really lay out exactly how you enforce this standard. But the standard is that if someone swore an oath to the government, either encouraged or supported insurrection, and then seeks to return to government, that they can’t do so, that they can’t continue to hold an office. And there’s a lot of interpretation in all sorts of ways on this. But, as Asa Hutchinson pointed out, this is something that has been raised. There’s a genuine concern as regards Trump. If he’s convicted, it could become an even bigger concern, particularly if he’s convicted in the Washington, D.C., case brought at the federal level by Jack Smith or in the Georgia case, both of which talk about attempting to overturn an election.

AMY GOODMAN: And to be clear — 

JOHN NICHOLS: So this is a big deal.

AMY GOODMAN: — it would be individual secretaries of state who could say Trump is not going to be on our state ballot?

JOHN NICHOLS: Theoretically, that’s one way to do it. And certainly, that’s something that several groups, John Bonifaz’s group and others, have raised as a possibility. There is also the possibility that Congress itself could take action and, via a resolution, say that it is the determination of the Congress of the United States that Donald Trump is in violation of 14.3. I mean, there’s several ways to go at this. No matter what happens, if it does — if it were to occur, if a secretary of state were to bar Donald Trump from the ballot, you’d have a legal fight. There’s very little question of that.

And I think that what’s significant with Asa Hutchinson bringing this up in the debate is that it brought this issue more to the forefront, and, I think, opens up, hopefully, a broader discussion about the clear constitutional concerns as regards someone like Donald Trump seeking to return to the presidency.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, although Donald Trump, of course, who’s the leading candidate, skipped the debate, he appeared instead in a pretaped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

TUCKER CARLSON: Do you think we’re moving toward civil war?

DONALD TRUMP: There’s tremendous passion, and there’s tremendous love. You know, January 6 was a very interesting day, because they don’t report it properly. I believe it was the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken before, and you know some of the crowds I’ve spoken before. And, like, July Fourth on the Mall, I think that had a million people there. But I think that the biggest crowd I’ve ever spoken before was on January 6th.

And people that were in that crowd, a very, very small group of people — and we said “patriotically and peacefully,” “peacefully and patriotically,” right? Nobody ever says that. “Go peacefully and patriotically.” But people that were in that crowd that day, very small group of people, went down there. And then you — there were a lot of — a lot of scenarios that we can talk about. But people in that crowd said it was the most beautiful day they’ve ever experienced. There was love in that crowd. There was love and unity. I have never seen such spirit and such passion and such love. And I’ve also never seen, simultaneously and from the same people, such hatred of what they’ve done to our country.

TUCKER CARLSON: So, do you think it’s possible that there’s open conflict? We seem to be moving toward something.

DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know. I don’t know, because I don’t know what it — you know, I can say this: There’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen, there’s a level of hatred that I’ve never seen, and that’s probably a bad combination.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, John Nichols, your response to Trump’s comments to fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson? Also the fact, what he said, Vivek Ramaswamy mimicked his line, which is, he said America is “in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war,” last night he said.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah. Well, I was in Madison, Wisconsin, on January 6th, and so I can’t attest to what Donald Trump thinks he saw, but my sense of what occurred on that day is very, very different than his. And I think that the same goes for committees that have investigated it and others. And so, Trump is clearly putting his spin on this.

But the most troubling thing is that he is suggesting that there is a possibility for additional violence. And that is a deeply unsettling statement by a former president, the front-runner in a presidential race. And it also does, as you suggest, parallel what some of the candidates are saying, especially Ramaswamy, who has — you know, did indeed in the debate suggest a very dark vision of America. In fact, he explicitly rejected Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” statement from back in the 1980s, and argued that things are actually pretty awful and potentially could get worse. So, you really do have a split from the Republican Party of the past to a party that is much more, for lack of a better term, combative.

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GOP Candidates Refuse to Say Climate Change Is Caused by Humans; Vivek Ramaswamy Calls It a “Hoax”

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