It's long been Republican orthodoxy that no matter what Donald Trump does, the GOP base will stick with him. After his last indictment in New York, the party rallied around him.
But this time, privately, Republicans aren't so sure.
An operative in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' orbit, who requested anonymity to speak candidly without approval from higher-ups, said that "from an objective standpoint," the federal charges Trump faces for his post-presidency handling of classified documents are far more serious than the earlier ones around hush money payments before the 2016 election.
"I don't know what's going to happen in Georgia," this person said, referring to the investigation into possible election interference by Trump and his allies. "But the man is going to prison. It's happening. So at this point, where we are is 'Who's going to be the nominee?' … Donald Trump broke the law, and frankly, I'm not a never-Trumper. I'm really not. But this is too much."
"This is something that if you were to get George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and sit them down and explain to them what's happening … they would disagree with what Donald Trump was doing and would agree that he should be prosecuted," the person added.
That sort of comment is further than where many of Trump's rivals for the GOP presidential nomination will go publicly. Still, even out in the open, there are indications that they believe this federal indictment is far more serious than the last one. Many of the candidates are criticizing the Justice Department while avoiding giving Trump a bear hug of support.
Still, just what the GOP does about it remains up in the air. Interviews with more than a dozen Republicans associated with the presidential campaigns, allies, donors and aides revealed no cohesive strategy for how to handle a GOP presidential front-runner who is staring down a historic federal indictment.
"Every campaign right now that is not Donald Trump is receiving pressure from donors to go harder against Donald Trump," an aide to a rival presidential campaign said, adding: "The pressure is there. Is that where the larger Republican [electorate is] as a whole? Look at the comments from these various campaigns. You would see that none of them are taking that advice."
On Tuesday, Trump pleaded not guilty to 37 federal counts in connection to his alleged improper handling of classified documents and his refusal to return them to the federal government. He is the first former president to face federal criminal charges.
The GOP consternation that they could still end up with a nominee who has been convicted of federal crimes came through on a call among roughly 15 seasoned Republican operatives (none of whom are on a presidential campaign currently). The concern was widespread: Trump's latest indictment could cause further pain for Republicans at the ballot box.
The regularly scheduled call, which happens once or twice a month, was supposed to have focused on President Joe Biden, his son Hunter and how Republicans planned to hammer Democrats, a source who was on the call detailed. But the Trump indictment took over, with participants expressing deep concern about backlash and the party's fracturing beyond repair.
"Is it the movement or is it the man, and if the man perishes, what happens to the movement?" this person said. Republicans on the call, this person added, were "fearful that this is going to be the face of what it means to be a Republican."
On one hand, if Trump's GOP rivals blast him, they risk further alienating his committed GOP supporters. But give too much deference and they might box themselves in in a way that could make it much harder to differentiate from him as the campaign progresses.
Many of the Republicans who spoke with NBC News said it would be smart for the GOP candidates to avoid hitting Trump too hard at first — but to be sure to leave room open to hit him later.
"That's the smart play," said Mick Mulvaney, who was Trump's acting White House chief of staff. "The politics of this — not the law, but the politics — depends on whether the feds have more on Trump than what the indictment indicates."
The indictment alleges that Trump stored classified materials in a bathroom and on a ballroom stage at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, and that he presented government secrets to an author, a publisher and an employee of his political action committee. It also says Trump admitted to people that the documents were still classified.
But Mulvaney said many Republicans "and even some independents" are asking, "Where's the harm?"
"Put another way: Do we really want to throw an ex-president in jail for a 'technical' violation of the law?" he continued. "But if they have evidence that, say, he gave stuff to the Saudis, or even if a foreign operative had access to the records, that might cause even some hard-core MAGA people to stop and say, 'Hang on … that's a problem.'"
For DeSantis, consistently the second-highest-polling GOP presidential contender after Trump, as well as former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the next few candidates trailing DeSantis, the initial strategy has been consistent: criticize the Justice Department for the prosecution. On Tuesday, one candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, used Trump's arraignment as a backdrop for a news conference announcing he would pardon Trump and challenging his competitors to do the same.
But while, for the most part, those candidates initially held off on condemning Trump's conduct, in recent days they have openly suggested it may not be aboveboard.
On Monday, Scott described the case as "serious … with serious allegations," according to The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston, South Carolina. On a conservative podcast Tuesday, Haley described Trump as having been "incredibly reckless with our national security" while at the same time saying she "would be inclined in favor of a pardon" for Trump should she be elected.
In an interview on a Wall Street Journal podcast Tuesday, Pence said: "I have had the opportunity to read the indictment that was filed. I can't defend what's alleged. These are serious allegations."
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The aide to a rival presidential campaign said, "They're all making a similar case in the sense that there is Trump fatigue, it will continue to set in, and these continued indictments will only exacerbate it."
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was one of the first candidates who went hard at Trump over the indictment, but he also made it clear when he entered the race that his mission was to stop Trump from getting a second term and that he wouldn't hold back.
At a CNN town hall Monday, Christie blasted his fellow presidential contenders for being "afraid" to take Trump to task over the "indefensible" indictment.
"And we're in a situation where there are people in my own party who are blaming DOJ," he said, referring to the Justice Department. "How about blame [Trump]? He did it."
Most GOP voters don't seem concerned, as recent polling has put Trump's resilience within Republican politics on full display. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 81% of self-identified Republicans believe the indictment was motivated by politics. Meanwhile, a CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in part after news of the indictment broke found Trump with a nearly 40-point lead over DeSantis, with no candidate besides them polling above 4%.
At the moment, it looks as though the candidate best positioned to take advantage of an indictment-induced decline for Trump is DeSantis, who so far has kept his powder dry on the classified documents but has taken Trump to task over Covid and criminal justice policies.
"I kind of doubt" DeSantis will attack Trump harder, said Hal Lambert, a DeSantis donor and fundraiser. "I don't think they would be able to convince him to attack Trump. Most I have talked to are wanting civil policy differences — not name-calling or him attacking Trump personally."
In addition, a DeSantis fundraiser described the "general consensus" among DeSantis insiders as "we don't need to say anything; we think this is going to be really helpful."
"This makes the case much easier for an alternative to Trump," this person added. "And the first alternative is DeSantis."
Others weren't so sure. The DeSantis-aligned aide expressed dismay that the DeSantis political operation wasn't hammering Trump harder over the federal indictment and noted that his team has instead focused on discussing how his administration would "curtail" the Justice Department.
"They're all chicken to go after Trump, which is honestly sad," this person said. "These guys just don't want to do it. They're scared s--tless of Trump."
But Trump conveyed little concern about his rivals at his post-arraignment speech at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Tuesday night and made little reference to them.
"The idea of not continuing to run or being able to has never crossed his mind," a Trump adviser told NBC News. "Not once."
Attendees at the speech also said they weren't worried about their guy.
"I'm sorry," joked Larry Steinhouse, a real estate investor from eastern Pennsylvania. "Is there someone running against him?"
— Hallie Jackson, Henry J. Gomez and Jonathan Allen contributed.