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How the race for Republican presidential nominee looks with Trump's criminal charges

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Tomorrow, former President Trump will be arraigned in his third criminal indictment since March. The first was the case out of New York involving alleged hush-money payments. In June, it was a federal indictment over the handling of classified documents.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And last night came more federal charges, accusing Trump of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election. And another election interference case could bring even more charges after that out of Georgia. We're going to sort through the legal and political stakes of it all. And to do that, I want to bring in now former federal prosecutor and Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler and NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Hi to both of you.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Ailsa. Great to be here.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. OK, so, Paul, I want to start with you. I want to talk about the legal strategy. I know that you used to work in the same section of the Justice Department as special counsel Jack Smith, who will now have to prove that former President Trump truly knew and believed that there was no election fraud happening in 2020 but still tried to overturn the results of the election. Now, based on what you have seen so far, how challenging do you think it will be for Smith's team to make that case?

BUTLER: So I was struck by the simplicity of the January 6 indictment. Like Mar-a-Lago, it's a speaking indictment, where the prosecution tells a story. But where Mar-a-Lago is quite dramatic, the January 6 indictment is literally as simple as can be for the kind of felonies that it charges. So think about the 40 charges in the Mar-a-Lago prosecution. In the Manhattan hush-money case...

CHANG: Yeah.

BUTLER: ...DA Bragg charged 34 felonies. But in the federal January 6 case...

CHANG: There are four.

BUTLER: ...Arguably the most serious public corruption case in U.S. history, just four felony counts. So Ailsa, I imagine Jack Smith's strategy is to try to keep the straight - case straightforward so that it's easy and quick to try.

CHANG: But on that specific point of proving out the state of mind - that President Trump truly knew and believed there was no election fraud happening but still proceeded the way he did after the election - do you think that that will be hard to prove?

BUTLER: So the - there's evidence that Trump told Pence that he was too honest. That's corroborative, the prosecution will say, of Trump's criminal intent - that he knew the election wasn't actually rigged or stolen, but he didn't care. He was determined to remain in office by any means necessary. There's evidence that Trump will say, well, some lawyers told me that the election was stolen. But the indictment anticipates that defense and notes that Trump was told that the election was fair and square by the existing attorney general, the deputy attorney general, the White House counsel and even Trump's own campaign manager.

CHANG: OK, and Deirdre, former President Trump continues to be the front-runner in the Republican field for 2024. Will this latest indictment change that in any way, you think?

WALSH: It's still really early, but probably not, I mean, based on what we've seen so far. We saw the former president's political stock among the Republican base actually go up after their criminal charges in the New York case and in the documents case. If you look at polling before and after those two indictments, Trump's numbers went up both times. In the most recent NPR Marist NewsHour poll, which came out last week - before this latest indictment, but after Trump signaled he expected it to happen - Trump still has a lot of support. A solid 58% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents still want Trump to be the Republican nominee. There has been some slight softening among some independents and some GOP-leaning independents that could have an impact in the general election. But right now, in the Republican primary, Trump is easily ahead.

CHANG: OK, let's talk logistics, given the campaign and these upcoming trials. Paul, this is the former president's third indictment in recent months. The trial date in the classified documents case is already set for May. What's your sense of how the other trial dates will be prioritized or scheduled in this latest election interference indictment?

BUTLER: So the state cases should not be an issue. DA Bragg has already said he'll allow...

CHANG: This is the New York case.

BUTLER: Yeah.

CHANG: OK.

BUTLER: And he said that he'll allow the federal prosecutions to take precedence. And if, as expected, the Fulton County DA brings racketeering charges, that's a long, complicated prosecution that will probably go last. I suspect DA Willis wouldn't mind seeing what happens in Trump's federal January 6 trial because her prosecution is likely to rely on some of the same evidence. So of the two federal cases, Mar-a-Lago is more complicated because there are more defendants - three - and the evidence includes sensitive material related to national security. All of the defense attorneys have to get security clearance - clearances.

CHANG: Right.

BUTLER: That takes a month.

CHANG: Yeah.

BUTLER: And one of the defendants doesn't even have local counsel yet. There's nothing to stop the two federal judges in both those cases from getting on the phone with each other and the lawyers and working out an order which would likely lead to the January 6 prosecution going first.

CHANG: Getting priority. OK. And Deirdre, going to you - to stick with the 2024 campaign, how is the rest of the GOP field reacting to this latest indictment? Give us just a sense.

WALSH: Most are really not taking on Trump directly. Instead, they're echoing the former president's criticism of the Justice Department. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was on Fox News earlier today, and he essentially ignored the substance of these January 6 criminal charges. And instead, he said he would defang federal agencies if he's elected president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Well, one of the reasons I'm running for President, Harris, is to reconstitutionalize (ph) the federal government and these agencies that have become weaponized - the FBI, the DOJ - against political opponents.

WALSH: Former Vice President Mike Pence...

CHANG: OK.

WALSH: ...Was at the Indiana State Fair today, and he did criticize Trump. And he said he's getting bad legal advice.

CHANG: That was NPR's Deirdre Walsh and Georgetown law professor Paul Butler. Thanks to both of you.

WALSH: Thanks, Ailsa.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Megan Pratz
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