Podcast: Trump Trial Latest, Swing Voters On Economy : The NPR Politics Podcast The first week of testimony in Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York centered on David Packer, the tabloid mogul who says he helped quash stories in order to benefit the then-candidate's presidential bid. And in a Pennsylvania county where voters expressed concerns about inflation ahead of the 2022 midterms, people say they're still frustrated by high prices but that the economy is not necessarily the top factor in who they'll vote for come November.

This episode: senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political reporter Ximena Bustillo, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

This podcast was produced by Kelli Wessinger and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

Listen to every episode of the NPR Politics Podcast sponsor-free, unlock access to bonus episodes with more from the NPR Politics team, and support public media when you sign up for The NPR Politics Podcast+ at plus.npr.org/politics.

Politics Weekly Roundup: Hush Money, Pocket Money

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1197956345/1247551935" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHELLE: Hi. I'm Michelle (ph) from Minnesota. It's my first day back at school after missing a month for a medical leave to get my second new hip in three years.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Wow.

MICHELLE: This podcast was recorded at...

KEITH: 12:07 p.m. on Friday, April 26.

MICHELLE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will still be moving and grooving with my students again as the oldest 43-year-old you've never met.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Aww.

MICHELLE: And now here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: She's very chipper for somebody who's having a second hip replacement. You know, that's...

BUSTILLO: Feel better.

KEITH: Well, I feel as though the pain may be gone now that she has this bionic hip.

MONTANARO: That's true. You know, everybody I've talked to who's gotten them said that they feel much better afterward.

KEITH: I'm happy with the ones I have right now.

BUSTILLO: Salsa dance ready.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

BUSTILLO: I'm Ximena Bustillo, and I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: Former President Donald Trump's first criminal trial has begun in New York. The jury has been seated, and we're about a week into testimony. Ximena, just remind us of what's at issue here. These are state charges, in part related to payments made to two women during the 2016 presidential campaign who were alleged to have had affairs in the past with former President Trump.

BUSTILLO: So these are 34 felony counts of falsifying business record, many of these which are payments made to his then-lawyer, Michael Cohen. The prosecution is arguing that these were reimbursements to Cohen because Cohen arranged for these payments to be made to these two women - one was a Playboy model, one was an adult film actor - who were allegedly about to come out with a potential scandal that could hurt Donald Trump's 2016 presidential run.

KEITH: Right. And, Domenico, all of this was potentially going to come out right around the time of that "Access Hollywood" video in this critical moment in Trump's campaign where he was against the ropes.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and that's why the prosecution is saying that this is an election interference case because they were essentially catching and killing these stories that could make Trump look bad weeks before the election when the "Access Hollywood" tape had already been out there. This would have been compounding and could have hurt Trump.

KEITH: So David Pecker is the former publisher of the National Enquirer, which is a supermarket tabloid we've all heard of. He is a key witness in the case and the first witness that the jury has heard from. He's testified for hours and hours on end, and he does play this sort of critical role in that his organization was, to use this term that Domenico just said, catching and killing stories. So, Ximena, talk to us about what the jury has been hearing from David Pecker and just what this catch and kill thing is, what the arrangement was that the National Enquirer had with candidate Trump.

BUSTILLO: So Pecker really sets the scene, you know, starting to testify about how he has known Trump for decades, going back to the '80s and '90s. You know, Trump is a celebrity in the United States. You know, he's a known figure for the tabloids, sometimes even a friend tipping tabloids off. So they already have a relationship. Now, in August of 2015, Pecker testified that he was called into a meeting with Trump and Cohen. And in this meeting - it was, you know, just after Trump had announced his presidential bid - they ask him, what can you do to help the presidential campaign?

And Pecker says that in this meeting, he kind of agreed to three things. First, he would use his network of tabloids to publish really good press about Donald Trump. He would also use those same tabloids to specifically publish very negative press about his opponents and scandals and embellish anything that could be heard. But the other thing that he promised is to be, like, the eyes and ears of the Trump campaign. So there's this network of tabloids, National Enquirer obviously being the biggest one, and they use, you know, kind of the whisper of the sourcing network to trickle the information up from reporters to editor from editor, eventually to David Pecker. And then David Pecker would report anything that could be heard to Michael Cohen, specifically stories or allegations coming from women.

KEITH: And so ultimately, Pecker did come into these stories, did make these stories go away for Trump.

BUSTILLO: Yes, and so that's the catch and kill. So he would find these stories, he'd send them up, so that's the catch. Then the kill is that they would pay off the source. And he says, you know, paying off a source, that's something normal for a tabloid. They would do that. But it wasn't always normal to just not run the story once you pay money for it. That was the kill.

MONTANARO: Big picture here, I think that Pecker is important as a witness, not just because of what he has revealed, but also his credibility because, you know, Michael Cohen has certainly come under attack from Trump multiple times, and with some good reason because he has lied under oath previously. He did go to jail for lying to Congress. You know, so having someone like Pecker on the stand essentially, you know, give another angle to the story that we really haven't heard, I think, is more evidence on the prosecution's side that hasn't been out there really previously and hearing it from Pecker's mouth.

KEITH: Can we just step back, though? I have, like, the most basic question of all. Why is any of this illegal? What is the crime here that is alleged?

MONTANARO: Yeah, look, it's a complicated case. We've talked about it a little bit before, but this is essentially a case about falsification of business records, and they have to show furtherance of another crime to be able to make this a felony. And that's what they're talking about when they get to election interference and campaign finance violations.

BUSTILLO: And I will say Trump has pleaded not guilty, and his defense and what his lawyers are arguing is that he didn't do anything illegal. None of this is wrong. And, quote, "there's nothing wrong with trying to influence an election." That's what they call democracy. That's what they said in opening statements.

KEITH: And paying off a porn star is not technically illegal.

BUSTILLO: Hush monies are not illegal. That is their point. And for Trump's side, he keeps arguing that all he was doing was paying his lawyer.

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, it's different - right? - when you're changing what your business shows that you're trying to do because it implies a cover-up, that you don't want people to find out about this. And I think that's really what the heart of this is because we've seen - not just this case, but in the bigger context - what the state has gone after the Trump organization over has been a lot of fraudulent business practices. And I think that that's a big piece of why this matters in a bigger context.

KEITH: Ximena, this is the campaign now. What has Trump's mood been like? What have we seen from him around these trial days, which are four days a week?

BUSTILLO: Yeah, it is a range. I think, at times, he is very attentive. He has been watching Pecker as he testifies. When we did jury selection last week, at times, he would be watching the jurors, you know, everyday Americans, as they talked about their personal lives and their opinions and feelings about him as a candidate. At other times, he seems a little bored. His arms are crossed. He's looking down. His eyes will be closed for some time. And so there definitely is a range there.

MONTANARO: And I'll just say you can't separate the politics from a lot of this and the timing of where we're at here six months before the general election. And there's a big ethics piece of this, you know, that's at play. You know, President Trump when he was President, former President Trump now, he lied on Air Force 1 when he was asked about this. He admitted later to making these payments. And beyond the trial, it's something people are going to have to consider when they cast their ballots.

KEITH: Right. And we should say that all of this comes in a week when Trump's claim of absolute immunity was before the Supreme Court yesterday, related to a different indictment, a federal indictment related to January 6. Also, more of his allies have been indicted this time in Arizona, including false electors, as well as his former White House chief of staff and several of his private attorneys. There is just a lot going on, Domenico.

MONTANARO: It's a huge dragnet that we continue to see, although I have to say it's super interesting. I think there are legitimate questions about Arizona and, like, why this case is brought now, years after the fact, when this could have been taken up earlier. And, you know, it's also interesting that we continue to see these, quote-unquote, "fake electors" who are gone after or prosecuted. And it obviously is proving much more difficult for prosecutors to go to the top here. And it's surprising to me in some respects that we haven't seen more cases like we see in Georgia to sort of be able to climb that ladder and try to get to the top, because without Donald Trump, none of this takes place.

KEITH: Yeah. All right. Well, we are going to leave this conversation here, and, Ximena, thank you for dropping by.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.

KEITH: And when we come back, the economy and this election.

And we're back with Asma Khalid. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey there.

KEITH: And you are just back from a reporting trip to Pennsylvania. Tell us where exactly you went and why you went there.

KHALID: Yes. So I went to Northampton County in Pennsylvania. It's one of these rare parts of the country that went for President Obama then voted for President Trump, the former president, and most recently in 2020 opted for President Biden. So it's really flipped. You kind of meet a good mix of Republicans, Democrats and folks in the middle. And I'm sure you know this, but there's not a whole lot of counties that actually fit that description anymore.

KEITH: Right.

KHALID: And one of the main reasons I went there is when inflation and prices first began to tick up noticeably by, like, economic data standpoints in the summer of 2021, I went up to Northampton County. And so here we are, close to three years later. Inflation has ticked down, but many voters still say the economy is a big concern of theirs. So I went back to this specifically same county to get a sense of where people are now.

KEITH: And how are they feeling? I mean, like, obviously, inflation has slowed, but prices are still higher than they were four, five, six years ago.

KHALID: Yeah. Exactly. And I will say that there was a consensus, Republicans and Democrats, people don't feel great about the state of the economy, and it really does come down to prices. I heard this from a cross-section of voters. In fact, I even interviewed this macroeconomist who works at one of the local universities there, and she even said, you know, look, I know how economic data works, but even I have sticker shock, she says, when I go in. I mean, it is just, I think, in many people's minds, in her view, that we have this mental price point of pre-pandemic, what things should cost. And our minds haven't really readjusted because inflation was not that high for many, many years. And she said it'll take some time to sort that out. But the idea that prices are really going to drop down to where they were before the pandemic - most experts, most economists, will say that's not going to happen.

MONTANARO: I think that is the difficult thing, is people adjusting to a new normal, and they haven't quite come around to it yet. I mean, you know, the Gallup Economic Index showed people have gotten a little bit more confident about the economy, but still only 30% are saying that the economy is either excellent or good, and it's been basically flat since January or so. So, you know, people are starting to get a little bit more confident about the economy, and I think it's the kind of thing that floats all boats or sort of sinks them politically. Sort of the mood, in general, is driven by this, even if it's not the top voting issue for a lot of people, and, you know, Biden really sort of needs in the next two to three months for views of the economy to at least be improved or at least not blame him as much on his handling of it so that he can sort of benefit at least a couple of points across the swing states.

KEITH: Yeah. There's been a lot of talk about the vibe session, even as, you know, the objective economic data, jobs reports, things like that, have been...

KHALID: Wages. Yeah. Yeah.

KEITH: ...Wages - real wages even - have been really - it's been good news, and yet the mood is not that good...

KHALID: Yeah.

KEITH: ...As you've found. So do you have a sense, though, how much this matters? And that's even a crazy question to ask 'cause usually, we are like, oh, the economy, this is the most important issue.

KHALID: Yeah. I met Luis Escarman (ph). He's a truck driver. He owns his own truck. And so he told me, you know, fixing it, the maintenance, the fuel, all that feels really pricey to him these days.

LUIS ESCARMAN: Like, fixing the truck is double the price, like, mechanics parts, and the price for the loads are really low. So, for me, it's really difficult. And the prices going shopping is high.

KHALID: I met him outside of the Walmart parking lot. He is a Republican, and he had this grocery cart full with just, you know, three, four bags of groceries, and he pulled out his receipt, and it was $139. I mean, so people see that. They are frustrated. But what I think was super interesting is that he is, like, a realist about what life was like under Trump. He remembers that at times it was alarming, but he is still nostalgic for the economy a couple of years ago.

ESCARMAN: I'm doing way worse. I know it was a lot of fights in the country, a lot of - you know, it was kind of like a civil war, but financially, it was better.

KHALID: His fond memories of the Trump economy, I will say, were not particularly unique. And I don't even know that they were particularly predictive of how people say that they would vote. I met a Democrat there as well. Her name is Ruth Anne Aris (ph). She is retired, and she told me it's really hard to stay on top of expenses right now.

RUTH ANNE ARIS: It really limits your disposable income because you have to spend money on necessities instead of on, you know, stuff you - entertainment and things like that.

KHALID: She told me she buys a lot of frozen dinners, and, you know, she used to buy whatever she wanted, but now she automatically looks for the ones on sale. And so she told me, you know, she personally feels worse off than she did during the Trump years.

ARIS: Well, I know when Trump was in office, it was sad, but my 401(k) was just going up and up and up. I mean, it was wonderful to watch it. And then, you know, when Biden came in, that didn't happen.

KHALID: And I asked our economic expert, Scott Horsley, about this. He said, yes, it is true, the S&P 500 went up about 46% during Donald Trump's first three years in office. It has risen 26% during Biden's. Aris, I will say, like a lot of voters, didn't mention the last year of the economy under Trump and COVID. But I think what's interesting is that, like, many voters do have this it feels like frozen memory - right? - and the pandemic is just this blip. And then they reemerged, and they feel like they blame Biden now for the economy. She still intends to vote for Biden this November. She wants to see a more stable United States. She does not think that Trump and the chaos was worth the short-term gain of a 401(k) going up.

MONTANARO: I do think it's funny there is this sort of pandemic amnesia that's gone on with a lot of people in the electorate, including in the Trump campaign, who continues to ask, are you better off than you were four years ago? I mean...

KEITH: And literally four years ago...

MONTANARO: ...Four years ago...

KEITH: ...Things were shutting down.

MONTANARO: ...Was April of 2020, right? Like, we were essentially all going to be shuttered at home. I think what he really means is five years ago or during my administration because it's interesting that he sort of is Teflon Don when it comes to the pandemic's collapse and the economy that happened under him. And it's all sticking to Biden when it comes to, you know, really inflation that's related to the recovery from the pandemic.

KEITH: Well, and this is not that different from what happened with former...

MONTANARO: Right.

KEITH: ...President Obama.

MONTANARO: That's true.

KEITH: You know, like, the economy completely collapsed in the final months of the Bush administration. And then Obama came in and had to clean it up, but he got a lot of blame for the things he did to try to clean it up. He ultimately did win reelection, but moods about the economy were still extremely sour in 2012.

MONTANARO: And maybe that's instructive to the point that Asma's making that maybe people aren't necessarily voting 100% on the economy because that was true then, too, that people were a bit more sour on the economy just as they are now. People are being pushed to vote for different reasons.

KEITH: All right, we're going to leave this here for today. But when we get back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back, and it's time for Can't Let It Go, the part of the podcast where we talk about the things that we cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. I'm going to go first. There was this totally crazy story where these military horses in London...

KHALID: Oh, yeah, I saw that.

KEITH: ...Escaped. They were in some sort of training. They broke free. Four horses running loose, banging into buses and taxis, and the white horse had blood on its legs, and it was very alarming looking.

KHALID: I saw those pictures, and they were terrifying.

KEITH: Yes.

KHALID: I know that, like, the horses were probably terrified also...

KEITH: Yes.

KHALID: ...But I was like, I cannot imagine walking the streets of London and seeing wild horses with blood on them.

MONTANARO: I heard this story, and I felt like it was a sign of the apocalypse, and I was like, oh, my goodness. And then I heard that it's a pretty, like, normal reason for what happened. You know, these are military horses, and they got spooked by construction...

KHALID: Oh, is that what happened?

MONTANARO: ...Yeah, in the city and they sort of just kind of, like, took off.

KEITH: Yeah. Horses are so big and so powerful that I find them very scary. I know lots of people love horses, and I am just like, stay away from me. I don't know where to stand so you won't kick me.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: They're not donkeys.

KEITH: Asma, what can't you let go of?

KHALID: This is, like, strange alleged human behavior.

KEITH: Oh, goody.

KHALID: I was with President Biden the other week, and he visited this war memorial where one of his relatives, an uncle of his who was part of World War II, was never found. He was apparently shot down over Papua New Guinea during World War II. And afterwards, Biden, you know, spoke to us about his visit to the war memorial. And I was part of the presidential pool, so I was there, you know, with my big boom mic listening to my headphones. And he basically said - I'm kind of paraphrasing here, but he said, you know, they never found the body. There were a lot of cannibals for real in that part of New Guinea. And then he kind of just moved on. And I remember that, like, there was a lot of news that day, and in the moment, I was like, should I interrupt and be like, sir, are you suggesting that your uncle was eaten by cannibals? But it also felt like we should move on to the supplemental and ask some really newsy questions about that.

Anyhow, long story short, it seems like Biden brought the story up again. It has created this kerfuffle, though, on the diplomatic stage, where apparently, Papua New Guinea's leader, you know, rightfully took offense after the president implied his uncle was eaten by cannibals. And what was strange is that, you know, our editor actually flagged this report that suggests that, you know, Biden's uncle's plane was shot down. He - the plane apparently crashed into the ocean. There is no evidence he was actually eaten by cannibals.

KEITH: We all have family legends - right? - that are, like, handed down. And, you know, like, my grandfather allegedly dug a ditch that the - one of the atomic bombs was used to load into one of the planes in World War II - no idea whether it's true. Like, literally no idea. But, you know, when I go to the Space Museum, I'm like, oh, look, Great-Grandfather Pop dug a hole for that plane. I don't know if it's true. Domenico, what can't you let go of?

MONTANARO: Much lighter note - I can't let go of Rhode Islanders and their love of Dunkin' Donuts...

KEITH: Oh.

MONTANARO: ...Because there was a car that drove into a Dunkin' Donuts.

KHALID: Oh, well, that sounds scary.

KEITH: Was that an accident? That sounds terrifying, too. These are very terrified Can't Let It Go's.

MONTANARO: It is. And there was a young man outside of the Dunkin' Donuts. His mom apparently works there. And this young man was interviewed by WPRI, and he was, you know, asked, how do you feel about this? Like, and he said, you know, I'm happy she didn't get hit. That would have not been good. I think they said it was a car malfunction. And then he delivered this line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN HAIBOM: I was just, like, America doesn't just run on Dunkin'. Cars do, too.

MONTANARO: And he kind of, like, does a side-eye to the camera Jim-style from "The Office" at the end, like, I just got y'all. Yeah, I just couldn't go of the guts on this kid to think of that and to do it.

KEITH: Yeah. There you go.

And that's all for this week. Let's go get some coffee. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Jeongyoon Han, Casey Morell and Kelli Wessinger. Special thanks to Dana Farrington. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.