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Politics chat: GOP candidates gather in Iowa; special counsel for Hunter Biden

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Lots of legal jargon in the air at the moment. As we entered the weekend, news broke of a change to Hunter Biden's legal issues. Negotiations between his lawyers and the Justice Department broke down, and Attorney General Merrick Garland said the, quote, "extraordinary circumstances" of the case involving the president's son merited the appointment of a special counsel. And as we enter the new week, reports that a grand jury in Georgia may be asked to indict former President Donald Trump on charges related to election interference. We'll start there with NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Good morning, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, of course, we don't know what the grand jury there in Georgia has seen from state prosecutors. But for someone listening whose head is probably spinning with all the allegations against the former president, remind us what in the world is going on in Georgia.

MONTANARO: Well, as you remember, Georgia was a very close election, and it's where Trump and his allies made a push to overturn the result there. You know, this is where Trump was recorded in a phone call telling elections officials explicitly what he wanted. And remember, he lost there by 11,779 votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.

MONTANARO: One more than we have, Trump said. You know, and Georgia is a good reminder that the result of the 2020 presidential election was upheld after audits and recounts and court cases because of people like Republican elections officials in Georgia and Arizona who didn't bow to the pressure from the man who was then president of the United States. You know, Georgia could also be a really, really important case if an indictment does come down there and if there's a conviction because it's a state case. In other words, if Trump becomes president again, he can't - and no president can - pardon him from a state crime.

RASCOE: OK, so now on to Hunter Biden - I'll say the timing leads us to talk about these two things together, but these things are really two sides of maybe a different coin or the same coin. How would you say that?

MONTANARO: Yeah, if the coin is the presidential election, I guess it's two sides of it. One is a little more lopsided than the other because, you know, the Hunter Biden tax and gun charges and the charges that Trump undermined and essentially tried to overthrow democracy aren't quite in the same league, but they're apparently going to keep coming up in tandem because of the timeline and because Trump and President Biden are running in 2024. You know, I'm sure the White House would have preferred for the plea deal originally made between Hunter Biden and the Justice Department have stuck because this is likely now going to keep coming up over the next several months. You know, that fell apart. And now we saw this week Attorney General Merrick Garland appoint a special counsel. And that means this is going to continue to make headlines. And despite finding no ties back to President Biden, Republicans in Congress are going to keep up their investigations, looking to really muddy the waters politically.

RASCOE: The various cases and investigations didn't keep former President Trump from campaigning this weekend in Iowa, though questions did follow him there, tough questions. Here's one caught by a Des Moines Register reporter Galen Bacharier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GALEN BACHARIER: President Trump, did you intend to overturn the 2020 election?

TRUMP: You know the answer.

MONTANARO: So vague as always from Trump there. You know, it's one reason he's been so incredibly difficult to pin down over the years. You know, it's like if you asked me a question in this interview and I just said, you know the answer, Ayesha (laughter), you know?

RASCOE: Yeah.

MONTANARO: Maybe you think you know what I'd say, but you never really know, right?

RASCOE: Well, I know your thoughts, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Always.

RASCOE: But it might be different with Trump.

MONTANARO: We're just in sync that way. But, you know, look, Trump's efforts to change the results in multiple states are at the heart of the government's case against him. And look at all the ways he did try to overturn the results. We're talking about not just going to court, which is within any candidate's right, but then going beyond that with his pressure campaign, like in that Georgia phone call we heard, attempting to assign alternative slates of electors, the people who actually cast votes and are supposed to represent the people in the Electoral College. He also pressured top officials in his administration, like in his Justice Department, his own vice president. And of course, he encouraged outside pressure, which we saw culminate in violence and death on January 6, 2021. So we know that Trump and his allies attempted what they attempted, and yet he's still popular with Republicans and the front-runner in early states like Iowa.

RASCOE: In the minute we have left, Iowa is, of course, a state that's trended very conservative in the recent past. It's also a state where a governor - where the governor signed a ban on most - almost all abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. Last month, a judge blocked that law. It seems like abortion rights is an issue that keeps coming up, you know, month after month on the campaign trail and, you know, in politics.

MONTANARO: Yeah, it's interesting because many abortion-related moves that have been backed by Republicans have been very unpopular, but they continue to push them, and that could cost them in the upcoming elections. You know, since Roe was overturned, abortion has been on the ballot in ballot initiatives in seven states, including in red states like Kansas, Kentucky, Montana and just this week in Ohio. And in all cases, the anti-abortion-rights side has lost. And it's really a big reason why Republicans underperformed in 2022 in the midterms there because of abortion rights and Trump, and both are figuring to be on the ballot in 2024.

RASCOE: That's NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thank you so much.

MONTANARO: Hey, you're welcome. Thanks for having me. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.