Visitors from a foreign planet might think Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida had been delivered a tremendous gift this week when his main presidential rival was charged with mishandling the country’s national security secrets.
But as Mr. DeSantis’s latest speech showed, this is a turn of events he will need to beware.
In an address to Republicans in North Carolina on Friday night, his first public remarks since the unsealing of federal charges against former President Donald J. Trump, Mr. DeSantis trod carefully and danced quickly past the subject.
Previewing how he might criticize the Justice Department’s case without letting Mr. Trump entirely off the hook, he offered a somewhat backhanded defense of the now twice-indicted former president — whose loyal followers Mr. DeSantis is seeking to avoid angering — by drawing on his own experiences as a Navy lawyer.
Seeming to muse aloud, Mr. DeSantis asked what the Navy would have done to him had he taken classified documents while in military service. “I would have been court-martialed in a New York minute,” he said, in a riff on Mr. Trump’s hometown.
While Mr. DeSantis made his remark in reference to the fact that Hillary Clinton did not face charges over her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, his comments could just as easily have applied to Mr. Trump. And they suggested that he believed both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton should have faced charges — or neither.
“Is there a different standard for a Democrat secretary of state versus a former Republican president?” he asked. “I think there needs to be one standard of justice in this country. Let’s enforce it on everybody and make sure we all know the rules.”
(A yearslong inquiry by the State Department found that Mrs. Clinton had not deliberately or systemically mishandled classified information.)
The nature of Mr. Trump’s federal indictment, which emerged in full view on Friday, left Mr. DeSantis and several other Republican presidential contenders ever more wobbly on the tightrope they are walking, trying to defend a rival accused of cavalierly and illegally keeping sensitive documents about U.S. nuclear programs and the country’s vulnerabilities to military attack.
Many of these candidates now find themselves in the difficult position of rallying around Mr. Trump even as they seek to differentiate themselves from his legacy while he continues to dominate them in the polls.
“This is not how justice should be pursued in our country,” Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and Mr. Trump’s United Nations ambassador, said on Twitter. “The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards and vendetta politics.”
Such caution struck a sharp contrast with the two Republican candidates most willing to criticize Mr. Trump.
Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey called the indictment “devastating,” telling CNN that “the facts that are laid out here are damning.” And in an interview with The New York Times, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas pushed back against claims that Mr. Trump was being treated unfairly and reiterated his belief that he should drop out of the race.
“To pejoratively say this is the result of a political prosecution is not in service to our justice system,” Mr. Hutchinson said, adding, “It would be doing a disservice to the country if we did not treat this case seriously.”
Jack Smith, the special counsel leading the investigation, urged the public on Friday to understand the “scope and gravity” of the charges.
Mr. Trump is expected to appear in Federal District Court in Miami on Tuesday afternoon to face charges including willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice. On his Truth Social website, the former president called Mr. Smith “deranged.”
Some voters who attended Mr. DeSantis’s speech in Greensboro, N.C., suggested they were growing weary of the controversy surrounding Mr. Trump, even as they expressed a belief that the charges were politically motivated. (Mr. Trump also faces charges in state court in New York for his alleged role in paying hush money to a porn star.)
“Even if he gets elected again, they’re never going to leave him alone. So what’s the point?” said Mary Noble, 70, who voted twice for Mr. Trump but has not made up her mind in the 2024 primary. “He’ll never be effective. That’s my fear.”
Tom Wassel, who sells air pollution control equipment and also supported Mr. Trump in both previous elections, did not mind that Mr. DeSantis had touched on the indictment only briefly, and not very forcefully.
“I want him to talk about what he’s going to run on,” Mr. Wassel, 70, said.
Beyond Mr. Christie and Mr. Hutchinson, Republicans running for president were largely supportive of Mr. Trump, with some arguing that the prosecution amounted to an extraordinary and unfair political vendetta and one going so far as to bluntly promise to pardon him.
Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur who has positioned himself to secure the backing of Mr. Trump’s supporters if the former president’s legal problems derail his political comeback, said, “I commit to pardon Trump promptly on Jan. 20, 2025.”
In a radio interview on Friday before the indictment was unsealed, former Vice President Mike Pence seemed to contrast Mr. Trump’s conduct with his own diligent return of classified documents to the National Archives. But he added that he was “deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward” and took a swipe at what he called “years of politicization” of the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the Republican nominee for president in 2012 and a leading critic of Mr. Trump, was one of the few G.O.P. officeholders to condemn him, saying the former president had “brought these charges upon himself by not only taking classified documents, but by refusing to simply return them when given numerous opportunities to do so.”
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting from Chicago, and Luke Broadwater from Washington.
Nicholas Nehamas is a campaign reporter, focusing on the emerging candidacy of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Before joining The Times in 2023, he worked for nine years at The Miami Herald, mainly as an investigative reporter. @NickNehamas
Jonathan Weisman is a Chicago-based political correspondent, veteran journalist and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” His career in journalism stretches back 30 years. @jonathanweisman
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