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Potential Republican primary contenders react to a possible Trump indictment

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The week began and ended with former President Donald Trump warning of his imminent arrest. He wasn't arrested. He still has not been arrested. But that did not stop Trump from ramping up threats of political violence as the week went on. A Manhattan grand jury investigation is focusing on payments Trump made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election in order to cover up an alleged affair.

And the saga shows one thing has not changed over the past eight years. When Trump posts on social media, the Republican Party is driven to respond. Those responses also provide a bit of a window into how other Republican presidential contenders view the state of the party. NPR political correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following all of this and joins me now. Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

DETROW: Before we get any further, remind us why Trump would believe he might be arrested in the first place.

SNELL: You know, Trump really is facing lots of legal jeopardy in lots of jurisdictions in many states. But this is a situation where the grand jury in Manhattan was scheduled to meet this week. And this really comes down to media reports that suggested that the grand jury's work was nearly complete and that indictments were imminent and Trump seemed to have been responding to those reports. Now, they did meet, but those indictments did not happen this week. That doesn't mean they couldn't still happen, but they did not happen this week.

Now, this is not one of those big questions about 2020 or interference in the election, but 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. So no indictment came, but Trump still started the day on Friday with posts on his, you know, social network, Truth Social, warning about what he called potential death and destruction if he's eventually indicted. So this is an ongoing question.

DETROW: And Trump has threatened in subtle and not-subtle ways political violence all along. But I think you have to take threats of political violence more seriously in the world after January 6, 2021, than before.

SNELL: Absolutely. And I think that's something that, you know, elected Republicans are very wary of and are trying to, again, struggle with how to respond.

DETROW: Right. And there's also a group of Republicans thinking about running for president against Trump right now, not that many have declared, but many are positioning themselves and expected to get into the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Talk about how that group of people has responded to this.

SNELL: Well, 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, that's - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: 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 year 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 that - 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 there's a serious legal situation happening this week, but I have to say there's been a lot of deja vu of another Trump dynamic. He posts something on social media. It gets into cable news. Republicans respond. I have very specific memories of being with you in the Capitol in 2017 and 2018, chasing down lawmakers, trying to get them to respond to tweets. At a certain point, when Republicans would say, oh, I haven't seen it, reporters would say, well, I, in fact, printed out this tweet...

SNELL: Yes.

DETROW: And here you go. You can see it right now.

SNELL: I mean, it is a powerful tactic from Trump. And it really served him both as a candidate and as president to be able to take control of social media, to force responses. But that's not always positive for him. It was a real turnoff, as you mentioned, for some voters, and it really did create new negative issues for him to respond to, both as president and after his presidency.

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: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks for joining us.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
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