In the overheated basement of the Thunder Bay Grille in Davenport, Iowa, on Thursday night, Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur turned Republican presidential candidate, tried out a new opening for his well-practiced stump speech.
“Although it would be easier for someone like me to win this primary or win this election if certain people like Donald Trump were not in the race, that’s not how I want to win,” the biotech millionaire told the Scott County Republican faithful who packed the room on the outskirts of this Mississippi River city.
“That’s not how we do things in America,” he continued. “We are not a country where the party in power should be able to use police force to indict its political opponents. And I stand not on the politics but on principle.”
It was a portentous broadside for a man running to be president, one that questioned the integrity of a justice system that had just brought the first federal charges against a former president. And it is something that Mr. Ramaswamy admits he has wrestled with, given that his assertions could undermine the rule of law that he says he stands by firmly.
The comments drew cheers from an audience not ready to repudiate Mr. Trump, but perhaps looking for an alternative.
“I admire Trump for what he did for our country; I admire him immensely,” said Linda Chicarelli Renkes, from Rock Island, Ill., just across the Mississippi, who had praised Mr. Ramaswamy for his promise to pardon the former president if elected. “But I’m tired.”
The indictment of Mr. Trump on charges that he mishandled some of the nation’s most sensitive military and nuclear secrets, then flagrantly obstructed law enforcement’s efforts to retrieve them, has put Republican political leaders at a moment of choosing between their oft-stated allegiance to law and order and their sensitivities to the passions of their voters.
More than any other presidential candidate not named Trump, Mr. Ramaswamy has staked an uncompromising position assailing the charges facing the Republican primary’s front-runner. He has not called the indictment “devastating,” as former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has. He has not called for Mr. Trump to drop out of the race, as former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas has.
He has not attempted the contortions of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, denouncing federal overreach even while suggesting that anyone mishandling classified documents should be prosecuted. He has not even allowed that the special counsel Jack Smith’s accusations are serious, as have former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley, both of South Carolina.
Instead, Mr. Ramaswamy has said that while Mr. Trump may have shown some errors of judgment, the Biden administration has dangerously abused its power in order to block the comeback of a political rival. In Davenport, he denounced what he called the “politicized persecution through prosecution” of the enemies of the Biden administration, and promised to pardon Mr. Biden’s victims en masse, whether they be “peaceful protesters” incarcerated for the attack on the Capitol or Mr. Trump.
For an outsider with no political experience beyond his cable news appearances and his “anti-woke” jeremiads against corporate liberalism, Mr. Ramaswamy is showing some staying power.
His poll numbers aren’t great — Mr. Trump’s own pollster, McLaughlin & Associates, released a survey after the indictment putting Mr. Ramaswamy at 2 percent in Iowa, behind five other candidates. But he has received the 40,000 individual donations to qualify for the Republican primary debates, and as of now, has the requisite 1 percent in national polling for the first debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee.
He also has deep ties to Republican power sources, including the tech financier Peter Thiel and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
But his run to the right, which had already alienated some of his business partners and financial backers, raises a new question: Are Republicans like Mr. Ramaswamy risking the stability of the country for their own political fortunes?
While Mr. Ramaswamy is the longest of long shots when it comes to winning the nomination, some fear that the aggressive rhetoric he and other Republicans regularly use — both in defense of Mr. Trump and in attacking the justice system — could cause lasting damage.
In an interview on his well-appointed campaign bus, the candidate was circumspect. He agreed that his call for every candidate to pre-emptively promise a pardon to Mr. Trump could breed lawlessness, though he concluded that his offer was defensible because it was narrowly tailored to only the charges laid out in the special counsel’s indictment. If other offenses, such as the transmission of national security secrets to foreign powers, emerged in trial, the deal would be off.
He also said he wanted to make “sure that I’m not contributing to a problem that I worry deeply about,” the erosion of the rule of law.
“The thought crosses my mind, but I think the facts are plain,” he said: President Biden has indicted the front-running challenger of the opposing party to thwart his rise.
Mr. Biden did no such thing. A federal grand jury brought the indictment, at the behest of a special counsel, named by the attorney general, Merrick B. Garland, precisely to insulate the legal investigation of Mr. Trump from any perceived or real pressure from the president or his political appointees.
Mr. Ramaswamy said he was not willing to accept that version of events. He flew to Miami on the morning of Mr. Trump’s arraignment to announce before the television crews assembled at the federal courthouse that he had submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for any and all communications between the White House and the Justice Department’s leadership, and between Justice Department leadership and Mr. Smith.
Mr. Ramaswamy does have a law degree from Yale, though he made his wealth not in law but in finance and biotechnology. Nonetheless, he speaks with absolute certainty when he rails against the validity of the federal grand jury’s indictment, which he said “reeks of politicization.” The Presidential Records Act, not the Espionage Act, is the governing legal authority over former presidents, he said, and the records act gives broad latitude to former presidents to retain documents from their years in the White House.
That reasoning has been dismissed by more experienced Republican legal minds, such as Mr. Trump’s own attorney general, William P. Barr, and the retired appeals court judge J. Michael Luttig. Judge Luttig wrote on Twitter on the day of Mr. Trump’s arraignment, “There is not an Attorney General of either party who would not have brought today’s charges against the former president.”
Asked about those judgments, Mr. Ramaswamy said he would have to examine the words of people like Mr. Barr and Mr. Luttig more closely. But he offered another defense of his attacks on the legal system: Republican voters already believe them.
“To actually recognize a reality that other leaders are reluctant to recognize, I think that is actually net trust-enhancing for our institutions,” he said.
Though he may be following the passions of the voters, not leading them, Mr. Ramaswamy insisted that his stand was principled, not political.
“I will be deeply disappointed if Donald Trump is unable to run because of these politicized charges against him,” he said.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s denunciation of the indictment is only the latest stand in a campaign predicated on his belief that the former president’s “America First” agenda does not belong to Mr. Trump, but to the American people — and that he has the intelligence and guts to take it much farther than Mr. Trump ever could.
If Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and Mr. Trump’s closest competitor, is “Trumpism without Trump,” Mr. Ramaswamy is putting himself forward as Trumpism squared.
The appeal has its limits, especially with ardent Trump supporters who still want the real deal.
“I haven’t seen anything that Vivek says and Donald Trump says that aren’t aligned perfectly,” said Clint Crawford, 48, of Eldridge, Iowa, after watching the candidate at a session at the Estes Construction offices four floors over downtown Davenport. With the former president bent on staying in the race, Mr. Crawford said, he’s not switching.
But there is a chance that Mr. Trump won’t make it through a potential federal trial, another possible trial in New York on felony charges surrounding a hush money to a porn star, a looming indictment out of Georgia for efforts to overturn the 2020 election results there, and more to come from Mr. Smith.
If Mr. Trump drops out, Mr. Ramaswamy intends to be the alternative.
“It’s so ongoing with Trump — it’s our past, it’s our present, and it’s not going to stop,” said Penny Overbaugh, 77, who had stood up in Bettendorf, Iowa, on Thursday to praise Mr. Ramaswamy for his performance in Miami on arraignment morning. As for the younger challenger, “the fact that he could see the hypocrisy of the two-sided justice system, he has conviction.”