Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his lieutenants in House leadership took a makeshift stage in a courtyard at the Orlando, Florida Ritz-Carlton to open up what was intended to be a conference of ideas; House Republicans had come together in the Sunshine State to build the party’s agenda and tout Republican successes. McCarthy, who had shed his typical Capitol Hill uniform in favor of a more casual look—more fitting for a day on the links than the Beltway—ticked through a smorgasbord of conservative talking points. “We’ve already accomplished quite a bit that we promised the American public,” he said to a gathering of reporters.

“We wanted to come out strong, bringing a good bold conservative agenda to the House floor that addresses problems that families are facing all across America,” Steve Scalise, the House Majority Leader, echoed. Notably absent from the group’s prepared remarks was mention of Donald Trump, who, now living a Couple of hours south of Orlando at Mar-a-Lago, had spent the weekend posting his way through the very real possibility that any day now he may be criminally charged. Namely, the former president and current third-time presidential candidate had called on his followers to protest should he be arrested as the result of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s investigation into his hush money payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” Trump wrote on Truth Social, in a post that instantly upended House Republican leadership’s planned agenda for the week.

“I don’t think people should protest this,” McCarthy said, responding to a reporter’s question on Trump’s most recent social media musings. There was an easy parallel to Trump’s rhetoric ahead of the January 6, 2021 riot, reporters reminded House Republican leadership, which sought to downplay the former president’s language. Trump’s comments, McCarthy said, were being misinterpreted. “He’s not talking in a harmful way … Nobody should harm one another.” He added later, “I think I’ve been very clear that I do not believe there should be any violence.” 

It could have been 2017, or 2018, or really any year since Trump’s political ascension in 2016. Seemingly every Republican policy negotiation in the intervening years has been disrupted by the latest Trump tweet, or overshadowed by his impeachment and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. This time Trump isn’t president, and he’s not on Twitter—he posts on Truth Social—yet he remains omnipresent in a party that has adopted his political style, and whose agenda has largely been consumed by his political grievances (see: Representative Jim Jordan’s committee on the “weaponization of the federal government”).  

At events open to the press at the retreat, the topic of a possible Trump indictment was front and center; it eclipsed any other agenda item, from GOP talking points on inflation, China, Joe Biden’s policies, and the debt ceiling. So salient was the topic that in the bilingual press conference, Mario Diaz-Balart had to repeat his opinion on the matter twice—in English and in Spanish. “Here we have a DA that is used to taking felonies and reducing them to misdemeanors. And then we have a noncrime being elevated. So yeah, it seems to be very, very political… All of that is very suspect,” he said. 

By Monday, Jordan had sent a letter to Bragg condemning the reports of a looming indictment as “an unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority,” based upon a “novel legal theory untested anywhere in the country.” Jordan called on Bragg to turn over any documents related to the inquiry along with Bragg’s testimony. The letter was hyped up by McCarthy.

“What changed? President Trump announces he’s running for president and shazam,” Jordan told reporters who caught him between legislative sessions, dismissing the whole thing as a “bookkeeping error from seven years ago.”

If Republicans have accomplished anything at this conference, foremost is a uniform message on the prospect of Trump getting arrested: “This Manhattan DA has professed, he brags about lowering felonies to misdemeanors and not prosecuting… And now he’s spending his time on this and the statute of limitations are gone,” McCarthy said of Bragg, who is leading the investigation into Trump’s hush money payment to Daniels. “It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. This is the type of thing America hates that divides us.” 

“I think that everyone in this country, Republican, Democrat, and others should be outraged that people will actually use our justice system against their political adversaries,” Tom Emmer, the House Majority Whip, said. 

Not one to miss a chance in front of the cameras, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene swooped in at the tail end of the retreat-opening press conference—the only Republican not in leadership to do so—to defend Trump, and attack Bragg. “Of course, President Trump means peaceful protest. And if Americans want to protest, a corrupt, [George] Soros–funded Manhattan DA who was ignoring crime in his own district and spending all of those tax dollars on figuring out how to politically persecute President Trump, then they have a right to protest it. And I completely agree with them,” she told a gaggle of reporters. 

Arguably, the only topic that came close to matching the interest of the indictment among reporters was Trump’s fellow Florida Man, Governor Ron DeSantis. During a sit-down interview on Monday night, reporter Jake Sherman asked Elise Stefanik about DeSantis’s recent comments on Trump’s reported pending indictment, the congresswoman—who has endorsed Trump—was blunt, “I think he is going to see slippage in the polls. He’s already seen slippage the past couple of weeks, and I think you’re going to see President Trump continue to solidify his position in the Republican nomination.” 

Afterward, Trump took to Truth Social to applaud Stefanik’s remarks. 

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