Republican swooning over former President Donald Trump’s policies is starting to break.
Potential 2024 rival Chris Christie has attacked Mr. Trump’s record as the 45th president in unusually stark terms, opening the door to closer scrutiny of Mr. Trump’s wins and losses on the policy front.
Mr. Christie, who is considering his own White House bid, says Mr. Trump doesn’t want to attend primary debates because he can’t defend his record in deterring rogue actors like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who invaded Ukraine last year and is getting cozy with President Xi Jinping of China.
“If he’s that afraid of [the debate], how can we count on him to do any better with President Xi than the failures he had in his first term with China? How can we expect him to do any better with Putin than having set the groundwork for the invasion of Ukraine, which his conduct towards Putin certainly helped to establish?” Mr. Christie told radio host Hugh Hewitt.
It was a jarringly direct attack on the former president, who tends to win praise from Republicans on taxes and border policy while taking flack from both sides of the aisle for his inflammatory rhetoric and fixation on the 2020 election.
Mr. Trump on Friday said his top rivals should learn from Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman who is flooding the airwaves as a 2024 GOP presidential candidate and tied former Vice President Mike Pence in a recent CBS News-YouGov poll.
“The thing I like about Vivek is that he only has good things to say about ‘President Trump,’ and all that the Trump administration has so successfully done,” Mr. Trump said. “This is the reason he is doing so well.”
During his presidency, Mr. Trump stumbled out of the gate by failing to repeal and replace Obamacare with GOP majorities in 2017. Yet he regained his footing with a tax overhaul and a robust economy, a long-awaited rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the appointment of three pro-life Supreme Court justices, winning plaudits even from Republicans who were leery of him at first.
On foreign policy, Mr. Trump fostered the Abraham Accords that smoothed relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors and struck a major trade deal with China, though the deal was spoiled by the arrival of the coronavirus.
Mr. Trump leads in early 2024 polling and has a special hold on the GOP’s blue-collar base, so it’s no surprise that his rivals are proceeding cautiously in their attacks.
Yet corners of the GOP are starting to revisit Mr. Trump’s performance in the White House, from criticism of his accepting the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to his bipartisan criminal-justice reform efforts being soft on crime.
Allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who hasn’t joined the race but consistently ranks second in GOP-primary polling, are highlighting the former president’s role in asking people to stay home during the early days of the pandemic.
“You saw President Trump stand with Anthony Fauci and have him try to force Florida into lockdowns. Gov. DeSantis stood against that,” Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC, recently told Newsmax.
The same PAC launched an ad characterizing Mr. Trump as a “gun grabber” because he offered support for red flag laws, banning bump stocks, improving background checks and raising the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21 when Congress debated new restrictions after mass shootings.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on emerging attacks but Mr. Trump is defending his record on gun rights. He told the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action leadership forum that he saved the Second Amendment from oblivion.
“And we’re going to save it for a long time to come. It’s under siege, but we’re going to save it for a long time to come. Forever, as far as I’m concerned, forever,” he said at the forum last month.
He’s also positioning himself as the tough on China, a rebuttal of sorts to claims he was soft on Mr. Xi.
“I will implement a four-year plan to phase out Chinese imports of essential goods and gain total independence from China,” Mr. Trump said at a recent rally in Waco, Texas. “I will hold the Chinese Communist party responsible for unleashing the China virus upon the world.”
Paul Mango, a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services in the prior administration, defended Mr. Trump’s pandemic response, saying he relied on experts during a time of “true ambiguity” around the virus such as how it would spread and how deadly it would be.
“When we learned more about the characteristics of the virus, however, it became clear to the president and many others involved that eradicating the spread of the virus ‘at all costs’ was not an optimal strategy. This is when the president said several times publicly that, ‘We cannot make the cure worse than the virus itself,” Mr. Mango told The Washington Times. “By August of 2020, the president and others were encouraging schools and businesses to reopen. Unfortunately, Dr. Fauci had become a darling of the media by this time and that boxed the president in somewhat.”
Mr. Mango said Mr. Trump achieve “spectacular” results, anyway, in obtaining over 100,000 ventilators, restocking the national stockpile with N95 masks and other gear while fostering the development of a vaccine in record time.
Mr. Trump has been out of office for over two years but GOP initiatives in the current Congress could expose him to new attacks on his record.
Congressional Republicans reversed a local D.C. crime overhaul that would have reduced maximum penalties for things like carjacking. They’ve also raised alarm about rising crime in U.S. cities, generally, prompting scrutiny of the criminal-justice overhaul that Mr. Trump championed with bipartisan support and celebrity backing from Kim Kardashian.
“Why the increase? Well, one reason is the First Step Act, a soft-on-crime bill that Congress passed in the final days of 2018. That bill let criminals out of jail early for even serious violent offenses like child molestation, bank robbery, assaulting a police officer — and yes, carjacking,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican who decided not to run for president in 2024, said in a March floor speech. “Now, the First Step Act wasn’t the only effort to coddle violent criminals, but it is an egregious law that made clear too many of our elected officials no longer take serious crime seriously.”
Mr. Cotton said he wants to reverse part of the law by ensuring that carjacking offenders serve their full sentence without time off for good behavior.
Mr. DeSantis is teeing up his 2024 bid by stiffening crime penalties, a move that could provide a political contrast with Mr. Trump’s marquee initiative. The governor signed bills this month that would make child rapists eligible for the death penalty, increase penalties for fentanyl offenses and drug-related crimes aimed at kids and restricts “bail reform” policies that could let defendants out of jail.
Political analysts said a Washington standoff over the nation’s borrowing authority could renew scrutiny of Mr. Trump’s record on the national debt.
Hillary Clinton, the Democrat who lost to Mr. Trump in 2016, posted a Treasury graph last week that says the debt rose from around $20 trillion to $28 trillion under Mr. Trump, with major factors in the increase including his tax cuts and emergency spending for the pandemic.
Mr. Trump’s failure to complete his border wall with Mexico could be another attack lane for his opponents, even though Mr. Trump insisted he plans to seal the border and expand the wall “even more.”
“From the exploding national debt to empowering Fauci to the unfinished business at the southern border, there is a lot of room to Trump’s right for his primary opponents to run in,” said Colin Reed, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for Mr. Christie. “Trump is and always has been a populist more than a conservative. The right messenger could exploit these opportunities if they’re able to go toe-to-toe with Trump on the inevitable counterattacks. If there’s a lesson to be learned from 2016, Trump will not implode on his own.”
As if on cue, Mr. Pence on Friday said the Republican Party will make gains in the 2024 election if it resists “the politics of personality and the lure of populism unmoored to timeless conservative values.”
Mr. Pence is seeking to strike a delicate balance between celebrating the accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration, while also convincing GOP primary voters he is better equipped — both in terms of demeanor and policy vision — than Mr. Trump to lead the party into the 2024 election.
Speaking to the FreedomWorks’ Restore Liberty confab, Mr. Pence said the GOP should be upfront about the need to reduce the costs of the nation’s entitlement programs as a way to curb the national debt and keep the programs fiscally solvent — distancing himself from both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump.
“Joe Biden’s policy is insolvency. And sadly, other Republicans have echoed Biden’s pledge ‘not to touch’ Social Security,” Mr. Pence told the confab in Palm Beach, Florida, right in Mr. Trump’s backyard. “I think we owe my three granddaughters better.”
Mr. Trump, responding to a Fox News questionnaire earlier this year, said opposing Russia in Ukraine is not a vital American strategic interest but it “is for Europe,” so those countries should be footing the bill.
Mr. Pence said the U.S. must continue to support Ukraine in its fight with Russia, an implicit rebuke of Mr. Trump’s isolationist stance.
“Ukraine is willing to fight, so let’s give them the support they need to win, so we don’t have to fight ourselves,” he said. “We don’t have to choose between prosperity at home and security abroad. Those who claim we do have a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth.”