By Eric Bradner and Steve Contorno, CNN
(CNN) — Donald Trump’s rivals have sharpened their attacks on the former president as they blanket Iowa just over a week before the state’s caucuses kick off the Republican presidential nominating race.
But in the shadow of the third anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, Trump’s Republican challengers are contorting themselves around what could be the former president’s greatest vulnerability in a general election rematch with President Joe Biden.
The anniversary comes a day after the US Supreme Court said it would take up the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to remove Trump from the state’s ballot, guaranteeing that his role in stoking the insurrection would remain central to the 2024 election.
Wary of alienating a Republican base that still largely believes Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — Trump’s two top-polling rivals — are carefully avoiding directly criticizing actions that have led to charges against the former president in federal and state courts.
DeSantis on Friday lashed out at the decisions in both Colorado and Maine to remove Trump from 2024 primary ballots under the 14th Amendment’s “insurrectionist clause,” and suggested he could seek political retribution by attempting to remove Biden from Florida’s ballot.
DeSantis equated Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and his supporters’ storming of the US Capitol, to decades of inaction in Washington on border security.
“I’m actually looking at this in Florida now. Could we make a credible case that Biden” could be removed from the ballot “because of the invasion of 8 million? And again, I don’t think that’s the right way to do it,” he told reporters following a campaign event in Cumming, Iowa.
DeSantis’ campaign did not respond to requests for more details.
It was the latest example of the Florida governor downplaying the importance of the stunning events on the day Congress counted the 2020 electoral college votes, which played out on national television.
In an NBC interview Thursday, DeSantis said the date has been “politicized by the left” and Saturday’s anniversary is like “Christmas Day for the media.” In a CNN town hall later that night, he said January 6, 2021, was “not a good day for the country.” But rather than focusing on Trump’s actions, DeSantis instead argued that Democrats would weaponize it against the former president, which is why, he said, the party needed to move on this election.
Haley has called January 6, 2021, a “terrible day,” and said Trump should have urged his supporters not to ransack the Capitol. But Haley, who served as the US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, has also repeatedly said – sometimes in the same breath – that he was the “right president at the right time.”
In a December interview with ABC, she also defended some who attended Trump’s rally before the attack on the Capitol.
“You had good people who went there to support him. You had good people that were there at the rallies and then you have people who broke the law, right?” she said. “There’s a difference. Don’t group everybody together.”
And in a CNN town hall Thursday night, she defended her assertion that she would pardon Trump if she is elected president.
“For me, it’s not about guilt or innocence. It’s about what’s in the best interest for the country. And I don’t think our country will move forward with an 80-year-old president sitting in jail,” Haley said. “That allows our country to continue to be divided. We have to move on past that.”
Haley on Friday said on Fox News she would not “preemptively” pardon Trump if she is elected president.
“I actually think you need to let it play out. I would think President Trump would want to play it out. You are innocent until you are proven guilty, and I would think he would want to fight for his innocence first,” she said.
The efforts of Trump and his Republican rivals to downplay the three-year anniversary of the attack come as the Biden campaign prepares to place his argument that Trump represents a threat to democracy at the center of the general election, starting with a speech Friday in Pennsylvania.
“I will say what Donald Trump won’t: Political violence is never acceptable to the United States political system. Never, never. It has no place in democracy – none,” he told a crowd at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell.
Trump responded to Biden on Friday in Sioux Center, Iowa, calling the president’s speech “pathetic fearmongering.”
“Did you see him? He was stuttering through the whole thing,” Trump said.
He also bragged that his speech on January 6, 2021, before the attack on the Capitol, was “the biggest crowd I believe I ever spoke to” and said, “You never hear about that, do you?”
“Nobody’s been treated ever in history so badly as those people,” Trump said of his supporters who have been prosecuted for storming the US Capitol during the violent insurrection. He again described them as “hostages,” and said the prison sentences many of the rioters face are “very unfair.”
The January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol resulted in 140 injuries to police officers — and Matthew Graves, the US attorney for the District of Columbia, said Thursday that figure “undercounts the number of officers who were physically injured, let alone those who have suffered trauma as a result of the day’s events.”
It has also led to more than 1,100 people facing criminal charges for their role in the attack.
Shifts from 2021 comments
In the days after the violent mob stormed the Capitol, DeSantis called it a “really, really a sad thing to see” and commended the arrests of those involved.
“Those folks who took it to the violent level, they need to be held accountable,” he said at the time.
But as he readied a presidential bid, DeSantis began to downplay the events. Ahead of the second anniversary last year, DeSantis lambasted the media coverage, describing the scene not as an insurrection but as a protest that devolved. It was, the Florida governor said, “just wrong” to call those involved seditionists.
Haley, too, has changed her tune in the years since the insurrection.
Days after the Capitol riot, Haley told Politico she was “so disappointed” and “disgusted” by Trump’s treatment of former Vice President Mike Pence during the insurrection, and said she was “deeply disturbed by what’s happened to” Trump after losing the 2020 election.
She also predicted then that Trump’s actions would end his political career.
“I think he’s lost any sort of political viability he was going to have,” Haley said then.
“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
Their evolution underscores the reality that Trump’s 2024 GOP rivals have never figured out how to hammer the former president over a potentially significant general election vulnerability without alienating the party’s base.
“In defense of the rest of the field, I don’t think any of them ever came up with a way to solve the algebra equation of how to run against a Donald Trump, who was getting rocket fuel from every single engagement he got from the legal system, so they all decided to basically do the same thing, which is defend the guy,” Republican strategist and CNN senior political commentator Scott Jennings said Friday on CNN. “It hasn’t yielded anything other than an increase in Donald Trump’s chances of becoming the nominee.”
With polls showing Trump remaining the dominant front-runner among Republican primary voters nationally and in early-voting states, DeSantis and Haley have sharpened their attacks on the former president in recent weeks. Two other candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, are running campaigns focused squarely on their opposition to Trump.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, meanwhile, has much more closely aligned himself with the former president.
On Saturday, he marked the third anniversary of the Capitol riot by referencing the false conspiracy theory that federal agents helped rioters breach the Capitol, calling the anniversary “entrapment day.”
“Happy Entrapment Day,” Ramaswamy posted on social media.
And Ramaswamy previously reacted to Colorado and Maine moving to remove Trump from their ballots by saying he would withdraw from the race in those states.
“I call on DeSantis, Christie, and Haley to do the same — or else they are tacitly endorsing this illegal and brazen election interference in the GOP primary. This cancer in American politics isn’t limited to the Democrats,” Ramaswamy wrote on social media.
DeSantis called Ramaswamy’s proposal “just absurd.” However, he now says he would move to take Biden off the ballot in Florida if the Supreme Court doesn’t side with Trump.
“What I don’t believe is fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” DeSantis said Friday. “Whatever the rules are applied to us, we’re gonna fight back and apply the rules the other way.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Kit Maher, Veronica Stracqualursi, Kate Sullivan, Jeff Simon and Aaron Pellish contributed to this report.
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