On Wednesday night, six of the eight Republican candidates in the party’s first presidential primary debate committed to support former President Donald Trump if he wins the party’s nomination—even if he’s convicted in a court of law for the many crimes he’s been charged with.
Trump has been indicted four times this year, most notably in two separate cases—one in federal court and one in Georgia—relating to his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, a plot that ended in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol that left five people dead.
Despite the evidence against Trump in those cases—and in a separate indictment over his mishandling of classified nuclear and military documents—Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Doug Burgum, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pence all pledged to support the former president even if he’s convicted.
Only Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, and Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, declined to commit to supporting Trump. Perhaps the most telling moment of that exchange was DeSantis waiting to see how others responded before raising his own hand.
Still can't get over DeSantis clearly waiting to see how everyone else responds before raising his hand. pic.twitter.com/4HvCoIrqmA
— Keya Vakil (@keyavakil) August 24, 2023
The candidates’ loyalty pledge came just hours before Trump is expected to surrender to authorities in Fulton County, Georgia on Thursday to be officially booked on his charges.
Trump, the race’s overwhelming polling leader, opted to skip the Fox News debate in favor of an interview with Tucker Carlson. While the exchange over Trump was one of the most illuminating moments of the night, it was hardly the only newsworthy one.
Here were three other key moments from Wednesday’s debate:
1. Republicans Can’t Agree Where They Stand on Abortion
In the 14 months since the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and overturned the constitutional right to abortion, Republicans have struggled to find a consistent position on the issue, as voters have repeatedly turned out at the polls to tell the GOP they support reproductive freedom and oppose abortion bans.
That struggle was on vivid display Wednesday. While candidates like Pence, Hutchinson, and Scott called for a nationwide abortion ban after 15 weeks, others like Burgum—who signed a punitive, near-total abortion ban into law in North Dakota—opposed the idea.
“We should not have a federal abortion ban,” Burgum said, expressing support for leaving abortion laws up to individual states.
DeSantis, who has signed a six-week abortion ban into law in Florida (pending active litigation), dodged when asked if he would support a similar ban at the national level.
Haley, meanwhile, said that candidates should “be honest with the American people” about the unlikely odds of banning abortion at the federal level, since it would require 60 votes in the Senate, and should instead seek to find “consensus.”
Pence, arguably the most anti-abortion candidate in the field, rejected her argument, stating that “consensus is the opposite of leadership.”
“When the Supreme Court returned this question to the American people, they didn’t just send it to the states only,” Pence said. “It’s not a states-only issue. It’s a moral issue.”
“A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come,” Pence said.
2. Vivek Ramaswamy Thinks Climate Change is a ‘Hoax’
Political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy was arguably the most controversial presence on stage on Wednesday, from repeating his call to abolish the FBI to making the bizarre claim that the federal government “pays single women more not to have a man in a house, than to have a man in the house.”
Yes, he really said that, and no, we don’t have any idea what he’s talking about.
But Ramaswamy’s most notable statement of the night came when he declared that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.”
His statement came after the debate’s hosts, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, brought up the summer’s devastating extreme weather events—from scorching heat in the Southwest to record-setting ocean temperatures off the Florida coast to the wildfires in Maui—and asked a question about climate change.
“Do you believe that human behavior is causing climate change,” MacCallum asked, directing candidates to raise their hands in the affirmative if they believe that.
DeSantis immediately rejected the idea of a show-of-hands response in favor of a discussion, which ultimately led to Ramaswamy’s statement.
“The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change,” Ramaswamy added.
Notably, Haley was the one candidate who openly acknowledged climate change was real, though she argued that to address it, the US needs to pressure China and India to lower their emissions.
3. Candidates Want to Invade Mexico While Abandoning Ukraine
DeSantis reiterated his stance that he would start a war with Mexico on “day one” of his administration in order to “take out fentanyl labs” and drug cartels.
At the same time, DeSantis would not commit to providing further financial or military support to Ukraine as it attempts to fend off Russia’s ongoing invasion.
“I would have Europe pull their weight. Right now they’re not doing that and I think our support should be contingent on them doing it,” DeSantis said.
Ramaswamy said he would completely oppose any further increase in funding for Ukraine and instead said he wants to use “those same military resources” at America’s Southern border.
“The reality is that today Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” Ramaswamy said.
He also criticized Christie and Pence for visiting Ukraine, which prompted harsh responses.
“I did go to Ukraine and I went to Ukraine because I wanted to see for myself what Vladimir Putin’s army was doing to the free Ukrainian people,” Christie said.
Christie continued, pointing out that “over 20,000 [children] have been abducted, stolen, ripped from their mothers and fathers and brought back to Russia to be programmed to fight their own families.”
“They have gouged out people’s eyes, cut off their ears, and shot people in the back of the head, men, and raped the daughters and the wives who were left as widows and orphans,” Christie said. “This is the Vladimir Putin who Donald Trump called brilliant and a genius. If we don’t stand up against this type of autocratic killing in the world, we will be next.”
Pence, meanwhile, said that letting Putin take over Ukraine would ultimately end with the dictator invading a NATO country, which would draw the US directly into war.
“He is a dictator and a murderer and the United States of America needs to stand against authoritarianism,” Pence said.
Notably, Pence’s remark came less than 20 minutes after he and five other candidates pledged to support Trump in 2024, regardless of whether he’s convicted of conspiring to defraud the United States for trying to overturn the 2020 election results.
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