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GOP candidates find themsleves in a difficult position given Trump's legal woes

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump's popularity with Republican voters is putting his GOP rivals in an interesting position.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

He's been indicted twice, but his popularity remains strong. So some Republican candidates, namely Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have tried to balance supporting the former president while softly criticizing him. But as a third possible indictment looms, this time over his actions during the January 6 attack, DeSantis is being a bit more forceful about Trump's behavior on the day of violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: It was shown how he was in the White House and didn't do anything while things were going on.

MARTIN: So are Trump's rivals now focusing on his legal woes?

FADEL: Here to talk about this is NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Hi. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So with the past two indictments, not only has Trump stayed popular; he's gotten more popular. So what's different this time with this possible indictment?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. I mean, DeSantis so far has largely ducked opportunities to criticize Trump. So this time, this caught the attention of a lot of people, including the Trump campaign. DeSantis is actually not the only one. Nikki Haley said on Fox News that Trump's legal troubles were a distraction, and she warned that if something didn't change, the entire primary was going to be about Trump and his legal problems. And that's kind of been the case so far, right?

FADEL: Right. But DeSantis also said he didn't think Trump's actions amounted to criminal behavior. Is he trying to have it both ways here?

ORDOÑEZ: It seems that way. I'd say, you know, they're kind of inching toward criticizing Trump. I mean, in almost any different type of political environment, an indictment would probably be a big opportunity for opponents to gain ground.

FADEL: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: But many Republican base voters now pretty much dismiss any allegation against Trump. So rivals are being careful. They do not want to alienate those people. And that's not really a way to win elections, though, at least according to Republican strategists I speak with like Doug Heye. He says eventually they're going to need to take on Trump.

DOUG HEYE: And ultimately, as we learned in "Star Wars," Luke Skywalker had to confront Darth Vader. He couldn't depend on the Force to take care of it for him. The Republicans are making a mistake in acting like that right now.

ORDOÑEZ: And he notes that Trump probably would not take such a large view if the tables were turned and, say, DeSantis was indicted. Trump would attack.

FADEL: I like that "Star Wars" reference there to describe the political landscape. Does the fact that this involves what was an unimaginable thing until it happened, an attack on the Capitol, make any difference?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, we're talking about a historic event, a deadly day that millions of Americans either watched live on television or on replay multiple times. At the time, most Republican leaders fled from Trump. There was a lot of talk that it was the end of his political career. But clearly perspectives have changed.

FADEL: Right.

ORDOÑEZ: And now he's the undisputed front-runner of the Republican nomination. I spoke with Bryan Lanza. He's a former aide who is still close to the campaign. He says another indictment is not going to change that trajectory.

BRYAN LANZA: The president has learned how to weaponize government's actions into a high-revenue venture for his campaign. I think anything that comes forward, we know what the game plan is going to be.

ORDOÑEZ: And that game plan is to raise money. They're going to continue to use the likelihood of an indictment as another example of how Trump's being unfairly targeted. Trump is already doing that on repeat. And the reality is, like it or not, much of the Republican base agrees with him because they too feel that Trump has been targeted.

FADEL: So he's weaponizing those indictments. That's NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much for your time.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Leila. 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.