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The politics of Trump's indictment

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The federal indictment of Donald Trump that was unsealed today is now the second indictment of the former president, a former president who is again running for the Republican nomination for president in 2024. And yet most of his rivals for that nomination have so far steered clear of criticizing him for it. Why? NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here. Hey there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What is the answer to this question, Domenico? Why do the very people running against Donald Trump seem not to want to use this to their advantage?

MONTANARO: It is odd, right? I mean, most people in most years who would want to defeat someone they're running against would grab this like gold. But it continues to be the case that these candidates are trying to walk a very fine line in not upsetting Trump's base. And we should be clear that Trump's base, when we talk about them - it's not just some small cadre of his supporters, but essentially almost all of the Republican rank-and-file voters. You know, Republican pollsters will tell you that maybe only about 10% of Republican voters are, quote-unquote, "Never Trumpers."

Another third are pretty solidly in Trump's camp, and the rest are maybe-Trumpers, you know, people who voted for him twice but are open to someone else this time around. Still, though, they have pretty warm feelings toward him. You know, for - just to show this, the Pew Research Center, for example, late last year asked a large sample of Republicans this question, and 60% said they still had warm feelings toward him. It was far less than in April of 2020 when he was still president and before January 6, and 8 in 10 Republicans said they had warm feelings toward Trump. But it's still a pretty sizable majority. And these candidates have really struggled in how to navigate, how to get them over to their side.

KELLY: OK. And that Pew research you're citing - that was from late last year, but it doesn't seem that his legal troubles since then have affected Trump's trajectory. Is there any reason to believe it will change?

MONTANARO: No, it's been just the opposite. You know, what Republican strategists tell me is that in the short term, it's hard to see how this will change anything and that these are people I was talking to who are not exactly rooting for Trump. You know, what they say is that actually they expect for this in the short term to actually help him, that he'll be the center of every conversation for the foreseeable future.

And many base voters are wondering why in, quote-unquote, "similar circumstances," they say, that they - there haven't been the same pursuit from the Justice Department of people like President Biden or vice - former Vice President Pence, who also had classified documents in their possession. And they ask why Hunter Biden, the president's son, hasn't gotten the same kind of attention. But the cases of Pence and Biden are really not analogous at all to Trump's situation because Biden and Pence discovered the classified documents in their possession themselves, gave them back, and the investigation into Pence has already been dismissed. The one looking into Biden's handling is still ongoing, but still really not all the same - not the same here at all.

KELLY: If Trump's rivals are not all over these charges against him, what are they talking about?

MONTANARO: It's being dismissed by them as the, quote, "weaponization of law enforcement" by people like, you know, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who's, you know, Trump's chief rival in this race. Senator Tim Scott, said something similar - he's the senator from South Carolina - as have a host of other congressional Republicans. You know, these Republicans - they just don't want to go there. It's a bit of a chicken and egg for them, frankly, though. You know, many privately will say they don't want Trump to be president again, but they're following his base. But you have to ask, you know, if leaders of the party running against Trump serving in leadership on Capitol Hill are not willing to speak out against the former president, even when they acknowledge privately that these are serious charges, then how do they and why would we expect Republican voters to react any differently?

KELLY: Well, and that's the central question. How did we get to this point where multiple investigations, now a federal indictment, doesn't shift public opinion?

MONTANARO: Well, the seeds of this have been sowed for a long time, so that's pretty hard to backtrack from. You know, Trump himself has been criticizing the Justice Department and the FBI for quite some time. We've seen a decline in, you know, confidence in these institutions that people once revered for quite some time here. You know, it's really been with Republicans where we've seen this steep decline. Recent polls have shown, for example, that two-thirds of Republicans say they only trust the FBI some of the time or hardly ever, and a majority think FBI agents are biased...

KELLY: Right.

MONTANARO: ...Against Trump.

KELLY: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.