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Washington Wednesday: The two GOP candidates

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WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: The two GOP candidates

Donald Trump’s trials move forward while Nikki Haley makes plans beyond South Carolina


Nikki Haley speaking with a supporter after a campaign event on Monday Associated Press/Photo by Meg Kinnard

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 21st of February, 2024. This is WORLD Radio. Thanks for listening. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

The GOP primary in South Carolina is on Saturday, with just two candidates: Former president Donald Trump, and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. Many expect this to be the last seriously contested primary race this year.

REICHARD: Now, before we get into expectations for the primary, a quick update on Donald Trump’s court calendar. Many of the cases filed against Trump last year are coming to trial this Spring, but not all of them.

The Georgia case involves charges of racketeering and election interference. That one is on hold while the judge decides whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis can proceed as prosecutor. Last week, Judge Scott McAfee held evidentiary hearings into whether Willis has a conflict of interest. She had a romantic relationship with the special prosecutor she hired for the case. Here’s Willis during that hearing, lashing out under questioning.

FANI WILLIS: You’re confused, you think I’m on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.

BROWN: Still, a judge could rule that by hiring her romantic partner as a special prosecutor she violated numerous ethical rules. Attorney Nathan Wade had no experience in prosecuting a case of this complexity. He’s a family law, contracts, and car accident lawyer. Willis paid him significantly more than other experienced prosecutors in the DA’s office.

And Trump’s attorneys argue that Willis benefited from Wade’s earnings when he took her on luxury trips and cruises. But Willis insists she reimbursed him for her share of the travel in cash.

WILLIS: Whatever it is, I didn’t make him produce receipts to me. Whatever he told me it was, I gave him his money back.

REICHARD: So the evidentiary hearings are over. Now it’s up to Judge McAfee with three likely outcomes: (a) Willis stays on the job, (b) she doesn’t and the state picks a new attorney, or (c) the entire case against Trump is thrown out.

Trump was not in Georgia for the Willis hearings. Instead, he was 900 miles away in a courtroom in Manhattan. He asked a judge to delay trial in the case District Attorney Alvin Bragg brought last year. Prosecutors say Trump’s team paid women to silence stories about extra-marital affairs. While so-called “hush money” payments are not a crime, Bragg argues that Trump used campaign funds in 2016 to pay the women … and then lied about it on financial documents. Here’s Bragg talking about the charges:

BRAGG: Under New York state law it is a felony to falsify business records with intent to defraud and intent to conceal another crime. That is exactly what this case is about: 34 false statements made to cover up other crimes.

BROWN: Judge Juan Manuel Merchan last Thursday denied Trump’s motion to delay trial … and so jury selection is set for March 25th.

Meanwhile in Washington, special counsel Jack Smith wants his election interference case against Trump to head to trial on March 4th as previously scheduled. That’s not likely to happen, given outstanding questions about presidential immunity that Trump has asked the Supreme Court to decide.

REICHARD: And one more trial update: the Florida case about classified documents is set to go to trial on May 20th, although that’s subject to change if one of the other trials presents a scheduling conflict.

As time-consuming as these cases are for Trump and his legal team, another problem now is the cost.

Last week, Manhattan Judge Arthur Engoron levied a $355 million fine plus interest against the former president for alleged business fraud, overvaluing business assets and falsifying financial statements to inflate net worth. Trump responded to the ruling from his home in Florida.

TRUMP: These are radical Left Democrats. They are lunatics, and it’s election interfering, so I just want to thank you for being here. We will appeal, and we will be successful.

BROWN: Keep in mind, this was a civil case, not criminal. The appeals process will take time and more money. And Trump has already been ordered to pay $83.3 million to journalist E. Jean Carroll in a defamation lawsuit he lost earlier this year. That’s in addition to another $5 million a jury found Trump liable for in a sexual abuse case Carroll won last year.

REICHARD: That brings Trump’s running total to approximately half a billion dollars, not including legal fees.

Trump’s super PACs have already supplied nearly $77 million dollars in fees, and the Republican National Committee has paid more than $2 million to legal firms representing the former president since 2021. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Nikki Haley supporter, says he doesn’t think Trump is guilty, but ...

SUNUNU: He’s still going to have to spend 50 to 100 million dollars defending himself. That’s kind of the point, that whether it’s legitimate or not, that doesn’t matter. He’s got this chaos that surrounds him. It absolutely does and would keep surrounding him if he were to become president.

BROWN: So far, Trump’s legal problems have not deterred many Republican voters in recent caucuses and primaries. The ultimate outcome of these court cases may change that, or not.

REICHARD: Joining us now to talk about the South Carolina primary from the campaign trail is Washington Bureau reporter, Carolina Lumetta.

Carolina, good morning.

CAROLINA LUMETTA: Good morning, Mary.

REICHARD: Well, what is the lay of the land for South Carolina polls?

LUMETTA: Well, South Carolina is a well-known Republican stronghold. Republicans have a state trifecta, meaning that they control not only the governor's mansion but also both chambers of the state legislature. The last time the state elected a Democratic president in a general election was when they chose Jimmy Carter in 1976, and even that was an outlier. In 2020, Trump won with about 55% of the vote, which was more than 10 points ahead of Biden, so we're expecting a pretty strong Republican showing, also likely for Trump. Most polls find him well in the lead, typically in the low to mid 60% to Haley's 30. However, the caveat here is that the state does not register Republicans or Democrats. People lean conservative or liberal, which makes polling pretty difficult. They also have open primaries in the state, meaning any voter can vote in either primary, but only one.

REICHARD: Trump has such a big lead in the polls, I’m wondering what is Nikki Haley aiming for? If she cannot win the state outright, is there something she could achieve that would give her campaign a reason to go on?

LUMETTA: Well, what's interesting here is that this is very much home turf for Haley, not only in the state, but also in these polls. She had a pretty surprising win for the governor's race back in 2010, where she defeated a 30-year incumbent and she framed it as the first woman to kind of break into that "good old boys" club. She also won reelection when that was not expected and in a political environment where you can tell the outcome of most elections, that's really interesting, to the point that her campaign has created all these T-shirts that just say "Underestimate me, that'll be fun." In this weekend's election, she's trying to flip this narrative where Trump is not really the outsider anymore, she is. Since he's been president before, she's the one who can come in and bring something new. This is also the argument that she's trying to use to downplay the fact that nearly every state lawmaker who has worked with her in the past has endorsed Trump, even ones like Senator Tim Scott, who she appointed, and Congresswoman Nancy Mace, who she campaigned for in 2022.

REICHARD: Well, Political wisdom would say that Haley should drop out if she can’t win or at least hit that 30 percent mark. So is her campaign treating South Carolina as a deal-breaker?

LUMETTA: Not at all. The big question here is what counts as momentum. If she underperforms below the 30%, there's still a few ways that she could spin that. For example, Democratic turnout in the primary on February 3rd was dismal, below 4% of all registered voters in the state. However, you don't have to be a Republican to vote in the GOP primary. So if Democrats and some moderates pick Haley, she could use that as some momentum. If she can also motivate more women, young voters, and first time voters, that also helps to say that she has momentum she can use to get into Super Tuesday. What I noticed though, is that Haley is very much already looking past South Carolina. She's held rallies in California and Texas in recent weeks. She's setting up leadership teams in a bunch of Super Tuesday states. This isn't something that you do if you're getting ready to drop out. Here's one surprising thing I also noticed in my inbox yesterday morning, Harlan Crow is on her Texas leadership team. And for background here, he's a billionaire who's a good friend of quite a few Supreme Court justices, a major donor to conservative causes. So even if she's not winning voters in each of these primary states, it does look like Haley's winning donors that can keep bankrolling her campaign buses for a while longer. However, a major South Carolina loss could worry those donors, so we'll have to see.

REICHARD: Indeed we will. And as a reminder, you can keep up with election results with WORLD’s online election center. Check it out at wng.org. Carolina Lumetta covers politics for WORLD. Thanks so much!

LUMETTA: Thanks for having me.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. 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 WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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