DeSantis, other GOP candidates stay quiet on Trump charges, attack FBI at Iowa dinner

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Days after former President Donald Trump was indicted on conspiracy charges relating to attempts to overturn the 2020 election, Republican presidential hopefuls in Iowa called for massively changing — or completely dissolving — the Department of Justice and the FBI.

But, despite their fervor against federal agencies, the candidates shied away from specifically discussing Trump’s latest charges.

Seven GOP presidential hopefuls converged in Cedar Rapids on Sunday night, speaking at a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson. Hundreds of Iowa Republicans mingled with the candidates over a pulled pork dinner, then settled in for two hours of speeches.

Hinson was the only member of Iowa’s D.C. delegation to post on social media after Trump’s latest indictment was unveiled Tuesday. She told a cheering crowd Sunday that she “will not stand for the un-American politicization of our justice system under President Joe Biden.”

A federal grand jury indicted former Trump on Tuesday on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election victory of President Joe Biden, including actions that resulted in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.

Iowa Republicans attending the Hinson fundraiser and weekend campaign events for Gov. Ron DeSantis had mixed opinions about the latest Trump charges — the third criminal case he faces. Some denounced Trump, arguing his legal troubles hurt his candidacy.

Kevin Brezina, a 66-year-old Tama resident who attended a DeSantis event Saturday, said he feels sorry for the former president, but his top choice for 2024 is DeSantis.

Potential caucus goers listen as Republican presidential candidates speak during the Ashley's BBQ Bash fundraiser, Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“I don’t think (Trump is) going to make it,” Brezina said. “I wish he’d bail out … because of all this stuff that’s going on.”

Others rallied behind Trump and decried the charges.

“They’re just trumped-up charges to try to get people to become weary of Trump,” said Susie Burns, a 74-year-old Fairfax resident attending Hinson’s event. “And I’m not gonna let them win. … I’m more convinced now that I’m not going to let the Democrats destroy Trump to the point where I’m going to vote for somebody else. No, he’s got my vote for sure.”

Republican presidential candidates target Department of Justice, ‘deep state’ corruption

Trump’s name was hardly mentioned at Sunday’s “cattle call” of candidates, but four of the seven who showed pledged to reform or to dissolve the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, eliciting cheers from the crowd.

Vivek Ramaswamy and Perry Johnson, both businessmen and newcomers to politics, advocated for a complete shutdown of agencies that they say are overcome by corruption.

“I am going to shut down the FBI,” Johnson said. “The reason I say that is that we have too much corruption, it’s been going on for literally 45 to 50 years. I say we end it. The Department of Justice, that has to be dismantled, because we have corruption there too.”

Republican presidential candidate Perry Johnson, right, is introduced during the Ashley's BBQ Bash fundraiser, Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Johnson was the only presidential candidate to mention Trump’s legal troubles on Sunday night. He reminded the crowd that he pledged in March to pardon Trump, if he is elected.

“I think that it’s unfair that we start picking on our candidates and letting the Democrats decide who should be running. This is not right,” Johnson said.

Even before criminal charges were brought against Trump, Ramaswamy had proposed a dissolution of federal agencies far beyond law enforcement. He reiterated his plan to a supportive crowd in Cedar Rapids.

“When there are government agencies that should not exist, that have become so corrupted that they have lost their original purpose — from the FBI, to the ATF, to the IRS, to the CDC, to the U.S. Department of Education — we will not just reform those agencies, no,” Ramaswamy said Sunday. “We will get in there, and we will shut them down.”

DeSantis pledged to “slay the administrative state,” though he did not call for completely shutting down any agencies.

“You’re going to get a new FBI director on day one. You’re going to get the DOJ cleared out,” DeSantis said. “There’s going to be a single standard of justice in this country again, and we are going to stop the weaponization of federal power.”

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis poses for photos with supporters as journalists document the scene during the Ashley's BBQ Bash fundraiser, Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Hinson’s event was the final stop on DeSantis’ three-day swing through Iowa. DeSantis told reporters on Friday that Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen were “unsubstantiated.”

DeSantis also announced his 40th Iowa legislative endorsement Sunday night: Rep. Tom Gerhold, R-Atkins.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump, said he would reform the FBI and the Department of Justice.

“We are a party that believes in our justice system, but we want it to work fairly, we want it to work rightly for the people of our country,” he said.

Hutchinson did not go on the attack against the former president, as he did at a GOP fundraising dinner in late July. There, Hutchinson told Iowa Republicans they will be caucusing “while multiple criminal cases are pending against former President Trump,” and he urged them to chart “a new direction for America and for the GOP.”

Republican presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson speaks during the Ashley's BBQ Bash fundraiser, Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Radio personality Larry Elder, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley stayed far away from discussion of the U.S. justice system or Trump’s entanglement with it.

Elder spoke about his family history and decried the “epidemic of fatherlessness,” which he attributes to government welfare programs.

“We’ve incentivized women to marry the government,” Elder said. “We’ve incentivized men to abandon their financial and moral responsibility.”

Burgum criticized Biden’s policies on energy, the economy and national security.

“D.C. needs more small-town values,” he said. “They need more understanding of what’s going on in America in small towns.”

Haley focused her entire speech on national security, saying the country was “totally distracted” from foreign threats by “a bunch of other things that don’t even matter.”

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during the Ashley's BBQ Bash fundraiser, Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“All of these issues are big issues,” she said. “But if we don’t have national security, none of it matters.”

Iowa Republicans diverge on opinions of latest indictment

Republicans who attended political events this weekend had a wide range of opinions about the criminal charges against Trump.

On one end of the spectrum was Roger Lutes, a 62-year-old Ferguson farmer who called Trump a “dictator.”

“If Trump gets in, he’ll try to take it over like he did the last time,” Lutes said at a DeSantis event in Tama. “He admires Putin, he admires the Chinese guy, because he’s a dictator himself. Nobody ever tells him no.”

Some Republicans said they were following the Trump news, but that it wouldn’t necessarily sway their decision in the caucuses.

“It doesn’t really bother me much. It doesn’t change my opinion of him,” said Danette Spurgeon, a 48-year-old nurse from Hiawatha who attended the Hinson fundraiser. “It seems like there’s always something that is going after Trump.”

U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, center holding hand up, performs with the Kickin' Country band during the Ashley's BBQ Bash fundraiser, Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Dawn Coffman, a 69-year-old Williamsburg resident, said she was following the indictment news and the misdemeanor charges against Hunter Biden.

“I believe it’s a circus on both sides,” said Coffman, who saw DeSantis in Grinnell. “I’m tired of it.”

Lynn O’Connell, a 74-year-old Cedar Rapids resident, said the indictments were “playing dirty” against Trump.

“Every time I hear another indictment, I’m like, yeah, now I’m really going to vote for Trump,” O’Connell said at the Hinson fundraiser.

Katie Akin is a politics reporter for the Register. Reach her atkakin@registermedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.

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