As news broke Tuesday morning that former President Donald J. Trump was likely to be indicted in a third criminal case, the reaction from his rivals in the 2024 Republican primary was notably muted.
Mr. Trump still had defenders — including his top competitor in polls, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — who cast him as a victim of “politicization” of the Justice Department. But the tenor was subtly different. Some candidates seemed visibly tired of having to continually respond to Mr. Trump’s legal troubles at the expense of talking about anything else, and some did not say anything at all.
Nikki Haley, who served as United Nations ambassador under Mr. Trump and is now running against him, sounded exasperated when asked on Fox News about the investigation into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. She called it a “distraction” from important issues like foreign policy, border security and the national debt.
“The rest of this primary election is going to be in reference to Trump: it’s going to be about lawsuits; it’s going to be about legal fees; it’s going to be about judges; and it’s just going to continue to be a further and further distraction,” Ms. Haley said. “And that’s why I am running, is because we need a new generational leader. We can’t keep dealing with this drama.”
She notably did not repeat what she said when Mr. Trump was indicted last month for his retention of classified documents: that the charges were evidence of “prosecutorial overreach, double standards and vendetta politics.”
A candidate who has been one of Mr. Trump’s most forceful defenders, the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, went so far last month as to urge every 2024 contender to pledge to pardon him if elected. On Tuesday, he continued to defend Mr. Trump — but not in as fiery terms as before.
“I would have made very different judgments than President Trump did, but a bad judgment is not a crime,” Mr. Ramaswamy said through a spokeswoman. “It’s a mistake to say he was responsible for Jan. 6. The real cause was systematic and pervasive censorship in the lead-up to those events.”
Mr. DeSantis, for his part, said that any indictment would be part of “an attempt to criminalize politics and to try to criminalize differences,” while also saying that Mr. Trump should have “come out more forcefully” to stop his supporters from storming the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who is among the few vocally anti-Trump candidates and is not polling well, reiterated his call for Mr. Trump to suspend his campaign.
“I have said from the beginning that Donald Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 should disqualify him from ever being president again,” Mr. Hutchinson said in a statement. He added, “Anyone who truly loves this country and is willing to put the country over themselves would suspend their campaign for president of the United States immediately.”
Another low-polling candidate, former Representative Will Hurd of Texas, was scathing: “Losing to Joe Biden was so humiliating to Donald Trump that he was willing to let people die for his lies about a stolen election,” he said in a statement. He added, “Trump’s inaction then, and now being a target in the investigation, proves he’s not fit for office.”
In other corners, silence reigned. The campaigns of Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami and Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, though he has made condemning Mr. Trump a centerpiece of his campaign and there was little doubt that he would eventually weigh in.
A spokesman for former Vice President Mike Pence — who, by certifying the election results on Jan. 6, made an enemy of his former boss — said that Mr. Pence had no comment Tuesday morning.
But, in a nod to the political inescapability of Mr. Trump’s legal troubles, the spokesman, Devin O’Malley, added that Mr. Pence would be making television appearances later in the day and would probably be asked about it then.