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Kentucky Republican officials denounce Trump conviction, with one big exception

Westerfield on the Senate Floor.
Sylvia Goodman
/
LPM
GOP Sen. Whitney Westerfield on the Senate floor Friday, March 15, 2024.

Outgoing state Sen. Whitney Westerfield was one of the only GOP officials in Kentucky to not denounce Trump’s conviction, and instead criticize his colleagues for undermining faith in the justice system.

The reaction of Republican officials in Kentucky to the conviction Thursday of former President Donald Trump on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records was nearly uniform — outrage and denunciation of what they called a corrupt justice system.

But there wasn’t unanimity.

The only real outlier was state Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Fruit Hill, who has been a regular outlier within the GOP in Frankfort over the last several years on matters related to Trump and his influence on the party.

Westerfield directly responded to a post on X from GOP Congressman Andy Barr that said the “corrupt” New York prosecutor “pursued this conviction through a sham trial” that was “marked by outrageous and unconstitutional tactics.”

“Disappointed in this statement, Congressman,” responded Westerfield. “The courts function as they should, and a jury decided the outcome, for better or worse. We absolutely cannot risk further eroding confidence in our justice system.”

Westerfield — who has been the only Republican in Frankfort to regularly and publicly criticize Trump in recent years, and indicated he won’t vote for either him or President Joe Biden in the 2024 election — expanded his thoughts in a post Friday morning.

“I will not contribute to the belief that we cannot trust the courts as the place where we find redress of grievances,” Westerfield wrote. “I encourage all elected leaders to do the same, whether they proudly stand with Mr. Trump and his campaign for office, or with President Biden in his.”

Trump, his attorneys and his allies have repeatedly attacked the character, motives and actions of prosecutors, jurors and the judge in the case. At a press conference Friday, the former president called Judge Juan Merchan “a devil.”

Westerfield — who is not running for reelection and whose term ends early next year — told Kentucky Public Radio that while he believed the prosecution had a weak case and Trump has every right to appeal the ruling, questioning the integrity of the justice system itself “is very dangerous territory.”

“I just think it's incumbent upon us as leaders to stand up for the rule of law and the Constitution,” Westerfield said. “You can dislike the outcome. You can question the weight or value or the quality or the veracity of the evidence. But don't question the system.”

Westerfield said the reaction of his GOP colleagues was disappointing, as they’re further eroding the trust of another system of government. He noted that Trump and his allies first chipped away at trust in elections in 2020 with baseless conspiracies about voter fraud and rigged voter machines, “leading to the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and a continuing narrative about how we can't trust elections.”

“What happens when our courts join the elections on the ash heap of things that a large swath of Americans no longer trust?” Westerfield asked. “It's a scary place for us to be headed toward, and I think we owe an allegiance to the truth — even if the truth is not what we want to hear.”

Immediate reactions from Kentucky GOP officials took direct aim at whether the system was trustworthy and suggested the prosecution was directed by Democrats and the Biden administration to influence the 2024 election.

Congressman Thomas Massie wrote that “partisan hacks serving as judges, investigators, and prosecutors have turned our legal system into a race at both the state and federal level.”

Congressman Brett Guthrie called it a “kangaroo court” and said it was brought by “a partisan hack prosecutor solely to stop President Trump from regaining the White House.”

Congressman James Comer said the conviction “is another example of Democrats being relentless in their pursuit to weaponize the courts, abuse America’s judicial system, and target (Biden’s) political opposition.”

Sen. Rand Paul asked “how long can our Republic survive once partisans have taken over the judicial process,” while a Republican Party of Kentucky statement suggested the state prosecution was orchestrated by the Biden administration “through corrupt and nefarious legal practices.”

The only muted criticism was from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who posted on X four hours after the conviction that “these charges never should have been brought in the first place. I expect the conviction to be overturned on appeal.”

Trump has repeatedly attacked McConnell and his wife Elaine Chao on social media over the last four years, though McConnell endorsed Trump’s presidential campaign in March.

High-ranking Democratic officials in Kentucky — where public polls say Trump remains popular after his blowout victories in 2016 and 2020 — have mostly been silent on the Trump conviction.

Spokespersons for Gov. Andy Beshear have not responded to requests for his reaction to the conviction, while a spokesman for state House Democratic leadership said they would not have an official response.

One party official who did respond was Congressman Morgan McGarvey of the heavily Democratic district in Louisville.

“In America, no one is above the law,” McGarvey stated. “Donald Trump is now a convicted felon. He is also the presumptive Republican nominee for president and he is unfit to serve in any public office, especially President of the United States.”

In the state Senate, Democratic Floor Leader Gerald Neal of Louisville also issued a statement saying no one is above the law and calling the conviction “a significant moment, showing the strength of our democracy and the importance of accountability.”

“Let us take this time to reflect,” Neal said. “We must stay committed to justice, equality, and the rule of law as the pillars that protect and strengthen our democracy.”

Westerfield acknowledges that he is a voice in the wilderness among Republicans in Frankfort when it comes to criticizing Trump. He said some here and in D.C. have “been mainlining the Fox News and Newsmax Kool Aid” and appear to be genuine in their support — specifically calling out U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson for calling the trial a “borderline criminal conspiracy” outside the courthouse.

However, he says there are other Republican colleagues who he knows feel the same way as he does about Trump and his actions, but remain silent out of what he assumes is fear that they would face a backlash from GOP voters if they voiced that publicly.

“I believe they think it's politically advantageous to not speak up. I think it's incumbent upon us to speak up,” Westerfield said. “I feel like I had to say something.”

“I'm a lame duck senator and I don't know that my voice matters much. But I want people to know there's at least one elected Republican out there who thinks what we're doing is really dangerous and wrong when we tear down our institutions of government.”

Trump is appealing the conviction, with sentencing set to take place in July, just ahead of the Republican National Convention. The jury unanimously found him guilty on all 34 counts of falsifying records to suppress hush money payments to two women just ahead of the 2016 election.

The former president also faces additional charges in other jurisdictions. Special counsel Jack Smith is prosecuting Trump on federal charges in two cases. The one in southern Florida relates to him allegedly mishandling sensitive government documents at his home and obstructing the federal investigation into this, while the case in Washington D.C. involves his alleged efforts to subvert the transfer of power in the White House after he lost the 2020 election.

Trump and many co-defendants also face racketeering charges in Georgia related to the alleged scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election in that state.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.
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