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What Trump's indictments could mean for his political future

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Donald Trump is not just a former president. He is also currently seeking the Republican nomination for the third time in 2024. That means he has to take his criminal charges out onto the campaign trail. And so far, previous indictments haven't had the impact that you might expect. But this latest indictment about alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election may be his toughest challenge yet. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is here to explain. Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. We have been talking all afternoon and night about the latest charges against Trump. How has he been responding so far?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, I guess kind of like you'd expect. I mean, he's fighting back. He's attacking the special counsel. He's attacking the Biden administration. He took to social media, you know, calling it another fake indictment. He says it's all political interference because he's running for the White House in 2024. And his team is actively trying to control the narrative. They have surrogates involved like Kari Lake, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in Arizona. You know, she and others are accusing the Biden administration with trying to distract from its own legal problems involving, for example, Hunter Biden by going after Trump.

You know, Ailsa, but I do want to note that while Trump and his surrogates are attacking the process and doing so vigorously, they're not so much talking about the substance. They say it's a politically motivated indictment, but they don't necessarily refute the specific allegations, nor do the lawmakers who back them. They don't argue that Trump never incited the followers who attacked the Capitol. They don't argue against allegations that Trump sought fake electors. In fact, Trump has continued to repeat some of the very claims laid out in the indictment.

CHANG: Yeah. And I mean, truly, Franco, this is the kind of scandal that would derail almost any other candidate, right? So tell us, how is Trump still standing after now three indictments? What's been the political strategy around this so far?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it's kind of amazing, frankly. I mean, Trump and his team see this as an opportunity to galvanize supporters. He's not running away from the charges. He's embracing them, and he's made it a core part of his message to get back to the White House. This, as you know, and as we've talked about, is a damning 45-page indictment. It's very detailed. It not only targets Trump but accuses Trump of enlisting six co-conspirators to assist him in his criminal efforts - that's a quote - to try and remain in power. But the reality is many of his supporters have become accustomed to dismiss any allegations against Trump as being politically motivated. And so anything that comes out of this, at least in the eyes of Trump and his supporters, is not more evidence of his wrongdoing but of the system being rigged.

CHANG: Well, as we noted, he is running for president. So how are his rivals responding to all of this?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, you'd think they would be, you know, using this as an opportunity to attack Trump, to kind of differentiate themselves. Now, it is early. We've only heard a few. Will Hurd, for example - he's the former congressman from Texas - he did say that Trump - this was another example of why Trump is unfit for office and accused him of scamming supporters in order to foot his legal bills. But I'd say he's - you know, he's more of the outside. I mean, most of the others have - their responses have been pretty tepid as they have been in the past. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for example - his top rival - on Twitter, echoed Trump's message accusing the Biden administration of weaponizing the government, and he did not give a specific opinion on the allegations. He actually said he hadn't read the indictment yet, so clearly being very careful.

CHANG: Right, right, right. But Franco, how much of a difference do you think this particular investigation will make? And I'm asking that because it's about January 6, which is so much more at the forefront of people's minds than the events that led to the previous two indictments, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Of course, I mean, the heart of this case is accusations that Trump undercut democracy and tried to stop the will of the people. I do think it's going to be hard to convince much of the public to ignore these charges, including many Republicans. But as we know, perceptions among many of the base Republican voters have changed and in dramatic fashion. And Trump is now the undisputed frontrunner of the Republican nomination. And when I speak with insiders, they tell me that this indictment is not going to change that.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.