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What all of Donald Trump's legal issues may mean for his political future

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rarely, if ever, has a possible presidential candidate faced so many investigations for his past conduct.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Justice Department is in court over the federal documents recovered from Trump's Florida residence. And it's also still investigating the former president's bid to stay in office by overturning his election defeat. A House committee plans fresh hearings in its own investigation. And all this happens while Trump talks of a possible third bid for the presidency in 2024.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is thinking through Trump's possible future. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What still makes Trump the leading Republican contender despite - or maybe I should say because of the investigation?

LIASSON: He has an intensely loyal base of supporters. And this is the real challenge for Republicans. Many Republicans in the party establishment would like to move on from Donald Trump. They try not to talk about him. They don't want to alienate Trump's base, which is the base of the party. And Trump has convinced large numbers of Republican voters to believe the lie that he actually won in 2020, when he lost, that the election was stolen, even though that claim has been thoroughly debunked. We have seen his base get more energized and more intense the more the pressure is from the Department of Justice on Trump. But that is not broadening his support. Our recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that, yes, a majority of Republicans want Trump to run again even if he's charged with a crime. But among independent voters, two-thirds of them say he shouldn't run again under any circumstances. So even if he's using these investigations to paint himself as a victim for his base, he's not convincing the broader public. And that has always been the dilemma for Republicans because he energizes his supporters as well as his opponents.

INSKEEP: I feel we need to underline a couple of things here. First, when people say half the country is for Trump and half against, that's just completely false. It's a relatively small minority of people that remain intensely loyal to Trump.

LIASSON: Well, yes. But in a match-up between Trump and Biden, he still polls very, very competitively.

INSKEEP: And then the next thing to underline - when you say independent voters, these are normally thought of as somewhat conservative-leaning voters that Republicans would generally get a lot of and would need. These are people who've turned against Trump, is that right?

LIASSON: Yes, at least when they're asked the question, do you want him to run again?

INSKEEP: So how is Trump defending himself?

LIASSON: Well, he always comes back to the idea that there's a witch hunt against him, no matter what the facts are, from the Russia investigation, his first impeachment over withholding defense funding from Ukraine for political purposes, now to the January 6 committee and the Mar-a-Lago document search. In this case, he's arguing that former presidents or that he should have special privileges. And the Department of Justice is arguing against the idea that former presidents should be above the law on handling and accessing classified documents, documents that deal with national security. And we are seeing a familiar modus operandi here where a lot of the claims that Trump has made, like these documents were planted or that he declassified them, are not being made by his lawyers in court, just like when he said the 2020 election was stolen. There were a lot of things he said in front of the television cameras that were not said before a judge under penalty of perjury.

INSKEEP: Would he insulate himself if he did declare for the presidency in 2024 and did it soon?

LIASSON: Well, that's possible. The Department of Justice has some pretty big decisions to make. Should they go after a former president? Should they go after someone who might be a presidential candidate? But politically, Democrats would like Trump to declare his candidacy for 2024 as soon as possible because they think that helps them in the midterms. It changes the conversation from inflation to Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.