STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
More than six years ago, I asked for an interview with a rising presidential candidate named Donald Trump. From time to time over the years since, I renewed that request. But it never quite happened until yesterday, when Trump joined us by phone from Florida.
DONALD TRUMP: Hello, Steve. How are you?
INSKEEP: I'm doing OK. Thanks for taking the time today. It's great to talk with you.
TRUMP: OK. Absolutely. Absolutely, Steve.
INSKEEP: There's no reason that you would know this. But we first invited you on the program in 2015. So it's great to get you.
TRUMP: Oh, wow. Well, I guess I got lucky by not doing it, right?
INSKEEP: It was a short interview before he hung up. We'll hear much of it in this part of the program. It takes decoding to figure out what's going on. So let's take a few minutes to do that first. Other Republican leaders are trying to drop Trump's failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Senator Mike Rounds made that case Sunday on ABC.
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MIKE ROUNDS: There were none of the irregularities which would have risen to the point where they would have changed the vote outcome in a single state.
INSKEEP: Many Republicans prefer to focus on President Biden as this year's congressional elections approach. Trump is pressing candidates in a different direction. One of them is Josh Mandel of Ohio, who launched his campaign for U.S. Senate just weeks after Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSH MANDEL: I think, over time, we're going to see studies come out that - evidence, widespread fraud.
INSKEEP: In the year since he made that prediction to WKYC, the opposite has happened. Even more evidence shows a free and fair election. In one disputed state, Arizona, Trump allies held a widely criticized audit of millions of ballots. But even Doug Logan, who ran it, couldn't find much.
DOUG LOGAN: The ballots that were provided to us to count in the coliseum very accurately correlate with the official canvass numbers.
INSKEEP: Keep that quote in mind because it comes up on the phone call we're about to hear with Donald Trump. To Republicans who know how elections work, the 2020 election result has always been obvious.
TREY GRAYSON: The facts show that President Biden won fair and square. It wasn't rigged.
INSKEEP: Trey Grayson used to run elections as the Republican secretary of state of Kentucky. He's thinking about those Republican T-shirts that used to say, F your feelings.
GRAYSON: And here we are, (laughter) looking at the 2020 election, and we are the ones who are basing it on feelings, not on facts, not on the law.
INSKEEP: That feeling among Republican voters gives Trump some power over Republican candidates. Here's one example. In Pennsylvania, numerous Republicans are running for office. And one candidate for governor is Bill McSwain, who happened to be a U.S. attorney during the 2020 election. We talked about him with Chris Brennan of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
CHRIS BRENNAN: Bill McSwain left office without announcing any investigations or outcome of investigations for the 2020 election in the eastern district of Pennsylvania.
INSKEEP: But then Bill McSwain prepared to run for office. Last summer, he produced a letter for Trump, appealing for his support and implying he was blocked somehow from investigating unspecified claims of fraud.
BRENNAN: But it doesn't actually say that.
INSKEEP: So even he, when you carefully read it, does not claim that he was blocked from investigating fraud.
BRENNAN: This is a very lawyerly letter. Yeah.
INSKEEP: Trump nonetheless made the letter public and gave his own interpretation at multiple rallies.
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TRUMP: We have a U.S. attorney in Philadelphia that says he wasn't allowed to go and check.
INSKEEP: Kentucky Republican Trey Grayson has watched similar stories unfold in multiple states.
How active has the former president been in moving 2022 candidates toward his point of view?
GRAYSON: I think he's been really active. The way I look at it is I can't imagine that the party on its own would be pushing this narrative if he weren't pushing it.
INSKEEP: So this, then, was the heart of our talk with former President Trump. You also hear the president adapt his arguments to account for more and more proof that he lost.
TRUMP: Are we going live, Steve? Are we...
INSKEEP: No. We're not going live. This is pre-taped.
TRUMP: OK. Fine.
INSKEEP: Here's the main part of our call yesterday.
South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds, as I think you know, was on ABC over the weekend. He spoke about the 2020 election and also referred to the election campaign that is now starting in 2022. Let's listen.
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ROUNDS: We simply did not win the election as Republicans for the presidency. And if we simply look back and tell our people, don't vote because, you know, there's cheating going on, then we're going to put ourselves in a huge disadvantage.
INSKEEP: Couple of things to ask about there, Mr. President. Let's start with the politics. Is it a disadvantage for Republicans to keep talking about the 2020 election in 2022?
TRUMP: No. I think it's an advantage because otherwise they're going to do it again in '22 and '24. And Rounds is wrong on that, totally wrong. If you look at the numbers - if you look at the findings in Arizona, if you look at what's going on in Georgia and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, by the way, and take a look at Wisconsin - they're finding things that nobody thought possible. This was a corrupt election.
INSKEEP: I just have to point out, Doug Logan - to name one of the states that you just named, Doug Logan, who ran the audit in Arizona that was set up by your allies, didn't find serious problems. This is a quote. "The ballots that were provided to us to count in the coliseum very accurately correlate with the official canvass number." He raised a bunch of administrative issues but didn't find a problem that would have changed the result at all.
TRUMP: The ballots may correspond. But look at the ballots themselves. What you really have to do in that report is look at the findings. And the findings are devastating for Arizona. They're devastating like nobody's seen before...
INSKEEP: Why did your...
TRUMP: And other states are just as bad.
INSKEEP: Why did Republican officials in Arizona accept the results then?
TRUMP: Because they're rhinos. And frankly, a lot of people are questioning that. Why would they? They fought very hard, the Maricopa County people. And people don't understand it because all you have to do is look at the findings. And just so you know, some of those people went before Congress a short while ago. And they were grilled by Congressman Biggs. You ought to take a look at their testimony.
INSKEEP: Trump was referring to a House hearing into the Arizona audit, where a lawmaker claimed not to know who won.
Let me read you some short quotes. The first is by one of the judges, one of the 10 judges you appointed, who ruled on this. And there were many judges but 10 who you appointed. Brett Ludwig, U.S. District Court in Wisconsin, who was nominated by you in 2020, he's on the bench. And he says, quote, "this court allowed the plaintiff the chance to make his case. And he has lost on the merits." Another quote - Kory Langhofer, your own campaign attorney in Arizona, November 12, 2020, quote, "we are not alleging fraud in this lawsuit. We are not alleging anyone stealing the election." And also, Rudy Giuliani, your lawyer, November 18, 2020, in Pennsylvania, quote, "this is not a fraud case." Your own lawyers had no evidence of fraud. They said in court they had no evidence of fraud. And the judges ruled against you every time on the merits.
TRUMP: It was too early to ask for fraud and to talk about fraud. Rudy said that because of the fact it was very early with the - because that was obviously at a very, very - that was a long time ago. The things that have found out have more than bore out what people thought and what people felt and what people found. When you look at Langhofer, I disagree with him as an attorney. I did not think he was a good attorney to hire. I don't know what his game is. But I will just say this, you look at the findings, you look at the number of votes. Go into Detroit and just ask yourself, is it true that there are more votes than there are voters? Look at Pennsylvania. Look at Philadelphia. Is it true that there were far more votes than there were voters...
INSKEEP: It is not true that there were far...
TRUMP: ...Gee, that's a pretty tough thing to - that's a pretty tough problem.
INSKEEP: It is not true that there were far more votes than voters. There was an early count. I've noticed you've talked about this in rallies. And you've said, reportedly, this is true. I think even you know that that was an early report that was corrected later.
TRUMP: Well, you take a look at it. You know the real truth, Steve. And this election was a rigged election.
INSKEEP: As our conversation went on, the former president attacked more and more Republicans.
TRUMP: Because Mitch McConnell is a loser. And frankly, Mitch McConnell, if he were on the other side, and if Schumer were put in his position...
INSKEEP: And the tone changed. We should tell you at this point that the former president had scheduled a 15-minute call. We made it nine minutes and 21 seconds. This is the end.
TRUMP: No sitting president has ever gotten the number of votes that I got.
INSKEEP: A lot of...
TRUMP: No sitting president - nobody believes - you think Biden got 80 million votes?
INSKEEP: No. It's...
TRUMP: How come when he went to speak in different locations, nobody came to watch? But all of a sudden, he got 80 million votes? Nobody believes that, Steve. Nobody believes that.
INSKEEP: If you'll forgive me, maybe because the election was about you. If I can just move on to ask, are you telling Republicans in 2022 that they must press your case on the past election in order to get your endorsement? Is that an absolute?
TRUMP: They're going to do whatever they want to do. Whatever they have to do, they're going to do. But the ones that are smart, the ones that know you take a look at - again, you take a look at how Kari Lake is doing running for governor. She's very big on this issue. She's leading by a lot. People have no idea how big this issue is. And they don't want it to happen again. It shouldn't be allowed to happen. And they don't want it to happen again.
INSKEEP: I want to...
TRUMP: And the only way it's not going to happen again is you have to solve the problem of the presidential rigged election of 2020...
INSKEEP: Mr. President, if I...
TRUMP: ...So Steve, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
INSKEEP: Whoa, whoa, whoa. I have one more question. I want to ask about a court hearing yesterday on January 6. Judge Amit Mehta - he's gone. OK.
That's how the phone call ended with former President Donald Trump. The question we started to ask was about the attack on the Capitol inspired by election lies. A judge is considering whether Trump can be held liable for his actions in court. If he can be, then Trump or his lawyers would someday have to answer the questions he did not answer in our shortened conversation. Now, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was listening along with us. Mara, hi there.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.
INSKEEP: So we've heard the former president is still invested in the election that he lost. Is his party still invested in it?
LIASSON: Well, certainly, the base of his party is invested. When you have 77% of Republicans believing the lie that Donald Trump was the true winner of the 2020 election, that's a big chunk of the party. And its tremendous power. Kind of the ultimate power is to get millions of people to believe in a lie. So he's got a lot of sway over them. But there is a debate inside the Republican Party. You heard Mike Rounds come out and state flatly, Trump didn't win the election. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, said the same thing. And there are really two different theories of the case here. There are Republicans at the RNC, and certainly Trump himself, who believes that the lie - or their belief that the election was stolen is a motivator. It's what will get people to turn out to, quote, "avenge the steal." It's what gets people to give money to the Republican candidates.
Then there are people like Mike Rounds, who, as you heard him say, say, if we tell our people don't vote because there was cheating, then we're going to put ourselves at a huge disadvantage. That's what some Republicans think happened in the Georgia runoffs in 2021, where Republicans said, why should I bother voting if the whole thing is rigged? And that's an internal debate. Right now, I think it's been solved, at least for the purposes of the primaries. Donald Trump is going to inject himself into primaries on behalf of people who repeat this lie.
INSKEEP: Mara Liasson, thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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