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Indictment could be a double-edged sword for Trump's 2024 presidential campaign

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

For the first time, a former president faces criminal charges. Donald Trump has been indicted by a New York grand jury. We don't know what the former president is being charged with, but the grand jury has been looking into payments made in 2016 to Trump's former attorney. The money was used to pay adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump. And the alleged crime involves how Trump logged the reimbursement as a business expense for legal services. So how will this indictment affect Trump's 2024 campaign? We turn now to Republican strategist Scott Jennings. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Hey, good morning.

PFEIFFER: Before I have you give us what you consider the political lay of the land, I'm interested in your personal reaction when you heard that this indictment had actually been handed down, even though we knew it might be coming. What did you think when you heard?

JENNINGS: Well, it's a sad day for America. I mean, I don't think most Americans want to think of their presidents or former presidents as people who would face an indictment. Even if you think it's politically motivated, you don't like the idea that a president's carrying an indictment. And the underlying behavior, of course, of the president here, the alleged behavior, I should say, is nothing you want to talk to your kids about either. So I think it's a sad day.

PFEIFFER: I know that Republicans are not a monolith. No voters are monolithic. But in generally speaking, do you consider this more a plus or more a minus for Trump's popularity among people who support him?

JENNINGS: Well, I was looking at a survey this week from Quinnipiac. They took a pretty large survey. And among Republicans, they were asked, do you think this is motivated by politics or motivated by the law? And 93% of Republicans thought it was motivated by politics. So that's pretty close to a monolith. Now, overall, the American people thought 62% said it was motivated by politics and 70% of independents thought that. Even 30% of Democrats thought that. So it's a strange situation because Trump is not usually on the right side of public opinion. He's more of a plurality type of politician. But in this case, most of the American people, at least according to this survey today, before we've seen the indictment, before we've seen the facts, seem to agree with him that this is a politically motivated indictment.

PFEIFFER: And knowing that prosecutors would realize that would be a reaction, did it surprise you that they decided to do this anyway?

JENNINGS: I'm not surprised because of the political dynamics in New York City. I don't know - you know, we haven't seen the evidence, and I don't know what all the charges are going to be yet. No one does. But no, I'm not personally surprised. I don't think Republicans are personally - most would say I'm not personally surprised by this because they think people like the prosecutor, Bragg, and other Democrats have been trying to get Trump for years. That would be their viewpoint. It doesn't necessarily make any legal difference, you know, when he takes it to a jury. But that's how they would feel.

PFEIFFER: Interesting because by doing it, they may have helped Trump and - even in wanting to make Trump be held accountable, as they would describe it.

JENNINGS: No question about that. I mean, when you look at the position that Trump's opponents are now in, you've got Ron DeSantis and everybody else who are running against him or thinking of it out here defending him. And so at least in the short term, it could be of some benefit. Now, this is one case. He's facing problems in Georgia. He's got the January 6 investigation, the Mar-a-Lago documents. I view this over the long term and I view these investigations like a sack, and you're putting rocks in a sack. This may ultimately be one of the smaller rocks. Maybe it's just a pebble. But if you were to add it to, say, other indictments for more serious issues where the evidence is more important and more stark and the issues are more consequential to American public affairs, maybe it's overall not a good thing to be indicted. I mean, I've done some political campaigns in my life, and I wouldn't recommend it (laughter) if you're trying to run for office. But in the grand scheme of things and all the issues he's facing, this one seems like the least consequential to me and, frankly, to most people.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned his opponents, and I want to ask you about that because we've already heard from Mike Pence, the former vice president, of course. He told CNN the indictment is an outrage. Here's part of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: I really do believe that this decision today is a great disservice to the country, the idea that for the first time in American history, a former president would be indicted on a campaign finance issue. To me, it just smacks of political prosecution.

PFEIFFER: And, Scott, then another political rival for the GOP nomination, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, he also spoke out against the prosecutor bringing charges. They could have used this to their advantage. They could have used it to really condemn Trump. Why do you think these challengers have decided basically to speak in support of Trump?

JENNINGS: Well, two things. No. 1, they can read a poll, and they see that, you know, over 90% of Republicans think it's a political prosecution. Even people who don't want to vote for Trump again or don't want him to be the nominee don't like this prosecution. They think it's all about politics. So at some point, being a Republican these days is about at least showing or channeling the emotional state of the Republican Party. And the emotional state of the party right now over this issue is that this is all politics, and we don't like it. And so there's really nothing to be gained among Republican primary voters by coming out and saying, well, I think Alvin Bragg's a smart guy and we ought to look into that. So they don't really have a choice. They're in a bit of a box here.

PFEIFFER: This does bring quite a bit of attention to Trump. He's a man who likes attention. He might find this beneficial. I'm wondering what kind of political advice you would give him if you were advising him as he's running now.

JENNINGS: Well, yeah, he's a ringmaster. And here's the first attempt that he'll have in this primary to paint this as like a liptic (ph) bright line. It's us versus them. And so if you're in his shoes, you're saying to Republicans, like, look, look at what they're doing to me. They're not going to stop. And, you know, siding with any opponent of mine, whether they're Republican or Democrat, is akin to siding with the people who are weaponizing our justice system against the Republican Party. So I think in the short run, he's going to paint this as a pure us versus them. And you can't be on multiple sides. You can't have it any other way except you got to pick me or you got to pick the partisan Democrats. And I think that's where you'll see him go, at least in the short run, on this particular indictment.

PFEIFFER: That's Republican strategist Scott Jennings. Thank you.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.