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New charges against Trump didn't keep him off the campaign trail in Iowa

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump is likely facing a third indictment, maybe a fourth. But that has not kept him off the campaign trail. He went to the annual Lincoln Dinner in Iowa last night, where he and 12 other presidential candidates took turns onstage. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters was there and joins us. Good morning, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning.

SIMON: Mr. Trump hasn't spent nearly as much time in Iowa as some other candidates. Noteworthy that he was even there?

MASTERS: Yeah, it was. And it's a high-profile public appearance at the same time he's facing mounting legal questions. And that's clearly on his mind as he went a little off script during his prepared remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And by the way, if I weren't running, I would have nobody coming after me. Or if I was losing by a lot, I would have nobody coming after me.

MASTERS: He said that, of course, just as new charges came this week in a federal case accusing him of illegally possessing classified documents. But in Iowa Friday, it was generally less about indictments and more about connecting with voters. The former president has been running here like he's already the nominee. He has not been appearing at these events that feature multiple presidential candidates before. And that's largely because he has to play by the rules like everyone else. Like last night, each address had to remain at just 10 minutes, and Trump had to condense his typical, long, meandering speech into that packed format. So he focused on what he called the achievements of his first term in office, from appointing justices to the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade to touting the farm subsidies he doled out during his administration. And that's how he's trying to remind Republican Iowa voters that he's their man in 2024. He continues to enjoy a lot of support here from Republicans.

SIMON: Clay, what was audience reaction like to Donald Trump and to other candidates?

MASTERS: So early on, you could kind of hear the clinking of silverware on plates of chicken and mashed potatoes in the ballroom. Over a thousand people were there. So it was dinner, and people were clearly focused on that part of the night. But politics was also on the menu. Mindy Ginger was there to see Trump and said she'd listened to what the others had to say. But she wants Trump back in office and was visibly frustrated when she was talking to me about the mounting indictments against the former president.

MINDY GINGER: I'm so sick and tired of all the crap they're doing to him right now. There is absolutely nobody - nobody - that could go through with what he's gone through and his family. Everybody else would have buckled like a cheap suit.

MASTERS: So Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, seen as Trump's main rival in this race, went early on in the program and stuck to his normal stump speech talking about laws he's passed in Florida like an abortion ban, for an example. Most of the candidates are still introducing themselves like former Texas Congressman Will Hurd. He's far from a household name, and he was not met with fanfare when he had this to say from the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILL HURD: Donald Trump is not running for president to represent the people that voted for him in 2016 and 2020. Donald Trump is running to stay out of prison. And if we elect...

(BOOING)

HURD: I know. I know.

MASTERS: And, Scott, you can hear the booing there. He said nominating Trump guarantees another term for Biden, and that was one of the only - at least the most direct attacks on Trump the whole night. The other candidates, including DeSantis, avoided calling Trump out by name. And Trump went last in these back-to-back speeches, and that meant he had the final word for the night.

SIMON: Clay, a new NPR poll shows that maybe the indictments, maybe other factors, add up to the fact that the number of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who say they believe Donald Trump has done nothing wrong dropped 9 points in the last month. Does this give any of the other candidates what they see as a path to the nomination?

MASTERS: Right. Well, afterwards, there were these meet-and-greets with the candidates. So people could shake hands and take selfies with them. And I used that as an opportunity to take kind of an informal straw poll. So bear with me. And judging from the number of people waiting to meet the candidates, Trump's doing just fine. There were also lines to see DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy while not very many people were sticking around by comparison to see former Vice President Mike Pence. So anecdotally, you know, Trump still has Iowa support. But he's still going to have to campaign here. Iowans reward politicians for showing up in all 99 counties. And most everyone on that stage vowed to spend a lot of time here between now and January 15. That's when, of course, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses will take place.

SIMON: And, Clay, how was the chicken?

MASTERS: (Laughter) I didn't have any of the chicken. I ate afterwards.

SIMON: Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters, thanks so much.

MASTERS: You're welcome. Thanks, Scott. 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.

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.
Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.

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