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Week in politics: Potential for criminal indictment hangs over Trump campaign

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We shift now to storm clouds in New York over Trump Tower. A source familiar with the investigation says the Manhattan District Attorney's office has invited Donald Trump to testify before a grand jury next week. That's where we'll start this weekend with Ron Elving, NPR senior editor, congressional correspondent. Morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Being invited to testify before a grand jury isn't quite like being invited to an Oscar-watching party. Inviting the subject of an investigation to testify often precedes a criminal indictment. Help us read what's going on here.

ELVING: The Manhattan DA has been investigating financial dealings of the Trump Organization over the years, as we know. But the focus in reports this week has been that payment that was called hush money that Trump made years ago to Stephanie Clifford, who is also known as the porn actress Stormy Daniels. That happened years in the past, as we say. But it's possible that new evidence or new witnesses may have emerged linking this to possibly other matters we don't know about yet.

This request to appear is more than a courtesy. It's required by New York state law, and it gives the subject a chance to possibly ward off the indictment. At the same time, no one expects Trump to even try to do that. His attorneys will tell him, don't do it; don't testify. And the indictment would be expected to follow in a matter of weeks. And we should note that Trump is also facing possible indictment in Georgia for trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential vote there. And there's a federal prosecutor working the Mar-a-Lago classified-documents case and the January 6 riot at the Capitol. So there could be charges there, too.

SIMON: Of course, Donald Trump is declared candidate for the Republican nomination already. Have we ever seen a criminal defendant run for the presidency? How exactly would that work?

ELVING: No one knows because no one who was an indicted defendant in either a state or a federal case has ever been a serious contender for the White House, let alone a front-runner, let alone a former president. So that would obviously be fodder for Trump's opponents in the primaries and beyond, and the media. But he can enter primaries and even the fall election with charges pending and still win the primary, still win in November. And Trump supporters have swallowed quite a few bad stories about him in the past. It does not seem to matter to many of them. In fact, it's been suggested that an indictment or two would actually be motivating for his hardcore backers and maybe even a source of sympathy among other voters.

SIMON: Meanwhile, the current president shows every sign of running for reelection but has not so announced. How is the president filling up his free time not running for president?

ELVING: Well, by running for president, by and large. He's traveling the country, even the world, taking credit for infrastructure and energy conversion projects, associating himself with the strong job market. He's produced his budget for the coming fiscal year. And it is very much a political document. Congress will pay only scant attention to it.

And Biden's trying to set up a contrast between his kind of spending cuts and tax increases and the kind that Republicans in Congress would prefer. And in case there were any doubt about that, the House Freedom Caucus had a news conference yesterday at which they laid out their - essentially, their ultimatum for what it would take to get them to vote to raise the debt ceiling later on this year. They've got some deep, deep cuts in federal programs that they would like to see, where Biden, obviously, is focused elsewhere and would like to raise taxes on the wealthy. One other thing Joe Biden's been doing to run for president is he's been moving to the middle on energy issues and also on crime.

SIMON: And help us understand the significance of something that's going on, because there are - I don't want to say suddenly, but there are a number of health concerns in the U.S. Senate, where, of course, the margin between the two parties is very slender. Pennsylvania's John Fetterman - Mr. Fetterman - we've talked about this before - of course, recovering from a stroke and now has current treatment for depression. And this week it was disclosed that the minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is being treated for a concussion.

ELVING: Yes. Now, we should note, of course, that the staffs for both those senators are talking about them recovering and returning very soon to the Senate. McConnell was up and around yesterday telling some jokes. But we should mention, too, that Dianne Feinstein has been hospitalized of late for shingles, in her particular case.

This is a Senate with no real majority, Scott. There are three independents who vote along with the Democrats. That makes them the majority. Any change in the lineup has enormous potential to scramble politics on Capitol Hill. And, of course, Mitch McConnell has been leader of the Republicans in the Senate longer than anyone else. And if we were to not have Mitch McConnell, there would probably be a scramble to find a new Republican leader in the Senate, as well.

SIMON: Yeah. NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us. And talk to you soon. Take care.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.