Possible Trump Indictment Is A Tricky Landscape For Rivals : Consider This from NPR Donald Trump was the first president in American history to be impeached twice. Now, he may be the first modern president, current or former – to be charged with criminal conduct.

The New York investigation into hush money paid to adult entertainment actor Stormy Daniels is just one of several criminal probes currently faced by Donald Trump, And it's the one that is closest to issuing charges.

Amid all the legal drama Trump has announced his third bid for the White House. A pending indictment would usually be a golden opportunity for Trump's Republican challengers - some who have declared - like Nikki Haley - and those who are expected to jump in the race - like Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis.

But for the field of Republican presidential candidates, taking Trump down while not alienating his base is risky business.

Host Scott Detrow talks to NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. He also talks to Jeff Sharlet, a professor of English at Dartmouth college and the author of the new book "Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War."

Possible Trump Indictment Is A Tricky Landscape For Rivals

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Dozens of sexual assault allegations.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Well, Donald Trump continues to fend off a series of sexual misconduct allegations brought against him.

DETROW: Thousands of lawsuits.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Tonight, two entities of the Trump Organization - the Trump Corporation and the Trump Payroll Corporation - found guilty of criminal tax fraud.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Some breaking news right now - we've just learned that Donald Trump has agreed to settle the lawsuits related to Trump University.

DETROW: Two impeachments.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Now, Donald Trump has become only the third U.S. president to be impeached.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The House of Representatives has reached the threshold for making Donald J. Trump the only president of the United States to be impeached for a second time.

DETROW: Donald Trump was the first president in American history to be impeached twice. Now he may be the first president, current or former, to be charged with criminal conduct.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The Manhattan District Attorney's office is offering former President Trump a chance to testify before a grand jury.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Legal experts say it's a move that signals criminal charges could soon follow.

DETROW: That New York investigation is one of multiple criminal probes Trump is currently facing. As far as we know, it's the closest one to issuing charges. They would stem from an investigation into hush money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. They were made by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen just before the 2016 election in order to quiet her allegations of an affair with Trump.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: So he says he arranged to make a payment of $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, in the waning days of the campaign, to prevent her from talking about an alleged affair with Donald Trump. Donald Trump has denied that.

DETROW: Andrea Bernstein has been covering Trump's legal woes for NPR.

BERNSTEIN: After Cohen made the payment, Trump's company came to an agreement that they would reimburse him over the course of the next year and call it a retainer for legal services when it was clearly not a retainer and there were no legal services. So what is at issue in this investigation is whether those payments, which were made from Donald Trump's personal bank account, were made in furtherance of another crime, possibly a campaign finance violation.

DETROW: Trump supporters have been very vocal about what they perceive as a political persecution timed to attack the former president as he runs for a third White House bid in a row.


ELISE STEFANIK: This is a political witch hunt perpetrated by one of the far-left radical socialist district attorneys, Alvin Bragg.

JIM JORDAN: President Trump announced he was going to run for president again, and suddenly, here they go. Now they're coming after him for some alleged bookkeeping error. You've got to be kidding me. So...

LINDSEY GRAHAM: They're brewing a legal cocktail to try to come up with some bizarre theory of the law, never used by anybody in New York, just 'cause they hate Trump. You know why they're doing this? 'Cause they're afraid of Trump. That's why they're doing it.

DETROW: And in the midst of this backlash, there are people running against Trump, Republican contenders for the 2024 presidential race who have declared, like Nikki Haley, and those who are strongly thinking about it like Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis. CONSIDER THIS - while a pending indictment would usually be a golden opportunity for Trump's challengers, there are a lot of Republican voters who love Donald Trump. For the field of Republican presidential candidates, taking Trump down while not alienating his base is a tricky landscape they need to navigate.


DETROW: That's coming up from NPR. I'm Scott Detrow. It's Saturday, March 25.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: This could still be pretty significant to Trump's political chances if in fact he is indicted because it could speak to his image with voters, or it could change the way that he interacts with the campaign.

DETROW: Kelsey Snell is a political correspondent for NPR, and she has been following how Trump is responding to this possible indictment in New York, as well as how his Republican challengers for the presidency are navigating the issue. I asked her what strategies the candidates are using.

SNELL: One of those, you know, expected potential primary candidates is former Vice President Mike Pence. And, now, when he was asked about it, he did not defend Trump. He said the idea of charging a former Republican president in a political environment like New York, where the attorney general is an elected Democrat, was troubling. But when he was asked about Trump's personal legal jeopardy, he basically said that Trump can take care of himself. So that's not exactly a defense, right?

DETROW: Yeah. And Mike Pence is somebody who's kind of tried to have it both ways many times when it comes to his relationship with his former running mate.

SNELL: Yeah. And, you know, I was also interested in another person who is presumed to be jumping into the race, and that's Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Now, he took the same tactic as Pence, sort of. He called it a possible prosecution and that it was political. But he also took a pretty clear jab at Trump. This is what he said.


RON DESANTIS: I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just - I can't speak to that.

SNELL: As you can hear there, he really did get a few laughs. But it does get to something that Republicans see as Trump's weakness, and that's morality and the parts of Trump where he's kind of bombastic and not on message.

DETROW: Right. And that's been a political conversation since he first ran for president in 2015. He was, of course, elected in 2016, but especially in the years since he was elected president, you have seen a lot of moderate voters, a lot of independent voters really turn off from Trump personally. How are people like Ron DeSantis trying to walk that line and trying to make that attack even as they try to avoid directly confronting him?

SNELL: I mean, they're trying to highlight these moments where Trump breaks with the image of the rest of the party. And you're also seeing Republicans trying to use their position in controlling the House of Representatives to move legislation that establishes a kind of positive record for them to run on. And a good example of that is the vote that they had this week on the Parental Bill of Rights. They're trying to establish this space of, you know, culture wars issues where they can take on an affirmative argument. We're also seeing it in the realm of transgender rights and other social issues where they think they can really capture their base.

DETROW: So here we are in 2023, and in many ways it feels very much like 2015, in which Donald Trump is a declared candidate for president. You have a lot of Republican officeholders and a lot of Republican officials saying in subtle ways, in - on background ways, I would love it if this man is not the nominee of our party. But you have a big chunk of Republican voters who love Donald Trump, and you don't have anybody who is topping him on the polls right now. So a question - again, March 2023, that I could have asked you in August 2015 - have Republicans come up with a way to successfully navigate Trump, his social media posts, the controversies that come with it?

SNELL: They have not. I mean, he is the former president. He has access. He is able to reach audiences that they are just not able to. And he is a huge force that they cannot avoid responding to. And he is extremely skilled at hijacking the national stage and conversations that Republicans don't want to have. Like you said, he was doing this before he was a candidate for president in 2016. This is something that he has honed over time, and Republicans are still trying to figure out how they respond.

DETROW: That was NPR political correspondent Kelsey Snell. Coming up, a writer and journalist goes deep into the heartland of Trump country, where for some continued support of the 45th president has taken on fanatic qualities.

JEFF SHARLET: You're following a different kind of logic where facts can coexist with these sort of dream realities.

DETROW: That's when we return.


SHARLET: In a much darker sense, his followers - they like the noise. They like the chaos.

DETROW: Jeff Sharlet has spent a lot of time in deep conversations with Trump supporters over the years, and he's written about those experiences in a new book called "Undertow: Scenes From A Slow Civil War." In a series of essays, Sharlet takes a close look at right-wing extremism and the momentum it's picked up in recent years. I asked him why he recently changed his mind on whether to refer to some of its elements as fascist.

SHARLET: Fascism is kind of a dream politics, and make America great again - it's a fantasy, right? We know this. This idea of a greatness that once was or could be - it was a utopian ideal. There's a sense of relief that they experienced in this fascist ideology. To stop holding on to reason and rationalism, to even abandon democracy - that wasn't present as much on the right even 10 years ago. And it was why I rejected then. I said, look, there's more than one kind of bad under the sun. There are abuses of power in the United States. But to call American - to call a party fascist at that point, I think was hyperbolic. And I think Trump opened that door.

DETROW: The essay at the heart of the book is in a lot of ways about how Ashli Babbitt, shot by police as she tried to make her way into the Capitol, into the House Chamber, into the Speaker's Lobby, right outside the House Chamber when there were still members on the floor - how she has become this martyr figure and how so much of a narrative has been built up around her and how so much of it is easily disproved, but that doesn't matter, right? And there was one passage that I highlighted where you write, it's satisfying when an expert flattens a false claim. That's how so many of us believe we'll resist the undertow of civil war, fact-checking our way back to solid ground. But such corrections miss the point. You can't fact-check a myth. I mean, especially - I was drawn to that probably because I've been a political reporter over the last eight years or so covering this. And often it feels like our contextualizing and fact-checking just goes into thin air. But mythology is such a big part of what's happening here.

SHARLET: Yeah. Yeah. And Ashli Babbitt - I mean, Ashli Babbitt is sort of the ghost that haunts "The Undertow" in the sense that watching - and we saw - you know, I begin that essay, we watched her die almost in real time, looped the video of her climbing up through the window, wearing her Trump flag and then shot. And we don't see the officer, but we see only his hands and the gun. And the hands are black. He's a Black man. And she's a white woman. And as soon as I saw that, I knew what was coming, having studied the right for a long time, but also living in America. This is a very old American story. It's the lynching story. It's the story of innocent white womanhood somehow threatened by a Black man. And sure enough, I mean, within days that became the story.

And they exaggerated the size of the officer who shot her, and they aged her backwards. That happened. That was really fascinating. She's a 35-year-old woman, 115 pounds - 110 pounds, says Representative Paul Gosar; in her 20s, says one witness. One pastor streaming to his congregation says in her teens, very young, 16, maybe. They're sort of aging her into this - their idea of an innocent white girlhood, and I think that's what - part of the dream politic of fascism is a kind of a delusion of innocence. You could almost - there's a proliferation of right-wing flags in the United States now, snakes and skulls and so on. And I can almost imagine a flag - and there are Ashli flags, too - of a fetus, a fetus and a gun. This is the cult of innocence and death that has grown up from the myth of Ashli Babbitt, about which we can hear - you can hear, you know, three or four nights a week on Fox News.

DETROW: You talked before about three acts of Trump, right? Trump the prosperity gospel, Trump who I alone can fix it, Trump who's going to come do the things that everyone else is too afraid to do, act to grievance Trump, who we saw during the 2020 campaign and after he was forced out of office by - after he lost the election and had to leave office. And this act three right now of Trump as a martyr, which is pretty relevant as we see New York's district attorney, Manhattan's district attorney possibly getting ready to charge him with a crime - do you think Trumpism as a whole has gained or lost power and momentum in this third act?

SHARLET: I think Trump has lost a little power, though not as much as we might like to believe. And certainly he's a man who rises and falls, so to count him out would be foolish. So I think Trump has lost a little power. My perception just sort of driving around the country, the flags are still there. There are more flags, and they're - you know, they're being joined by - if you've seen this, it's an all-black flag. It's the American flag but all in shades of black - not just black and white with a blue stripe, the Blue Lives Matter flag - all black. And it's a - what it means is no mercy, no quarter, the belief that civil war is coming, and that when it comes, take no prisoners. That, to me, says Trumpism is certainly growing more dangerous. I think it's growing more powerful as we have more and more representatives with it.

Ron DeSantis doesn't threaten Trumpism. He strengthens it even if he displaces Trump. Even Nikki Haley, the so-called moderate alternative, who, you know, the other day was saying something like 90% of American schoolchildren are under - our kindergartners are under the grip of critical race theory. I'm trying to imagine the kindergarten lesson that she's thinking of. I think Trumpism is gaining force, and it's gaining - it's important for us to recognize that it's - Trumpism is not American exceptionalism. We have Erdogan, the Trump of Turkey. There's a Trump of Myanmar. There's Putin. There's China. We live in a moment of. I think, a global fascist moment. We have to understand the threats to democracy not just in the American context but globally.

DETROW: That was Jeff Sharlet. He's a professor of English at Dartmouth College and the author of the new book "Undertow: Scenes From A Slow Civil War." It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Scott Detrow.


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