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As Trump's legal woes pile up, Iowa supporters are unfazed

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When it comes to former President Donald Trump's campaign for another term in the White House, the next three numbers tell the story - 71, two and 31. Seventy-one is the total number of criminal charges Trump faces in both New York state over alleged hush-money payments and a separate federal case over classified documents. Then there are two additional criminal investigations ongoing over election interference, including yet another federal probe that Trump claims has named him as a criminal target. And despite all of this, Trump remains 31 points in front of the next closest Republican presidential candidate in an average of national polls put together by the website FiveThirtyEight.

In the days after Trump's post on his social media site indicating that more criminal charges against him may soon be coming, we wanted to see how, if at all, this is affecting the presidential campaign. A good place to answer that question is Iowa, and a good person to help give us that answer is Iowa Public Radio's lead political reporter, Clay Masters. I started by asking Clay if it's fair to say that all of this legal drama is only increasing Trump's support among Iowa Republicans.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Trump supporters - I mean, they're not going to be fazed by anything that comes out against him. And if you spend much time listening to, you know, right-wing conservative media, a lot of podcast hosts, radio hosts or bloggers talk about how the Biden administration is weaponizing the FBI. And Trump has had more support from within the Republican electorate in Iowa than he did back in 2016, when he was first running, just as in the case of the Republican Party as a whole. So he already has a lot more support baked in. And I've had potential caucusgoers say to me, you know, this is all just noise that we hear about with these indictments and, really, anything that happens with the former president. They love him, and they want to support him.

DETROW: It's exciting to be talking about potential caucusgoers already with you. But you've been talking to a lot of these folks over the months. What has jumped out to you? What are the big themes of how they're talking about and thinking about former President Trump?

MASTERS: A lot of the people that are coming to these events are already pretty politically engaged. And so these are folks that want to take Iowa's role of first in the nation serious. They want to hear from these different people. There was an evangelical Christian gathering a couple of weeks ago, on July 14. I talked to Dave Totten (ph). He was there from Webster City in Des Moines, where this was happening. And he really likes Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, but he was really impressed with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. And he had this to say about former President Donald Trump.

DAVE TOTTEN: I think he did a lot of good things for America, but I honestly think we need to move on. I really do. I think - too many times, I think it became about him.

MASTERS: And so you have people that are saying those kind of things. But I also go back to - there was a guy I talked to at a event for Donald Trump, Rusty Spoor (ph) - big supporter of Trump and says a lot of the things that I had kind of been saying before, that he just sees a lot of the news that comes out about the former president as being noise. Here's Rusty.

RUSTY SPOOR: I believe Trump. I believe that he can do - if he says he can do it in six months, we'll hold his feet to the fire. And - but I believe he's a man of his words, and he gets things done.

MASTERS: And he was responding to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has regularly said you need somebody that can serve two full terms. Donald Trump already served a term, and Trump has been saying, you know, we can undo this in six months or whatever. So he's - just clearly has a lot of support for the former president.

DETROW: One of the big themes of this race so far is that a lot of the Republicans running against Trump in the primary aren't full-throat criticizing him, right? They are either defending him when it comes to these legal charges or criticizing him in implicit ways. I mean, I know that's changed a bit more recently, and you've started to see more direct confrontations between the candidates. But how have Iowa Republicans responded when other candidates express differences with Trump?

MASTERS: Well, the biggest critic that I've seen in Iowa of former President Donald Trump, with maybe the exception of Ron DeSantis more recently - but it's been former Vice President Mike Pence. You know, this is an unprecedented time where we have a former president running and then a former vice president running against the former president.

DETROW: Yeah.

MASTERS: And when the insurrection at the United States Capitol comes up, he regularly defends his actions on January 6. And here he was at the FAMiLY Leadership Summit, talking to Tucker Carlson, the moderator during that, about January 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: And I'll always believe that by God's grace, I did my duty that day under the Constitution of the United States of America, and our institutions held.

(APPLAUSE)

MASTERS: And you hear kind of a timid applause there, and that was a very common theme with the former vice president during that event with some 2,000 evangelical Christians. And there was even a moment where he was talking about U.S. support for Ukraine, with the war in Ukraine, where he was actually booed for saying that the United States should continue providing support to Ukraine against Russia.

DETROW: So how has Trump himself been handling campaigning at this moment in time?

MASTERS: Well, Trump really didn't play by the Iowa caucus campaigning rules eight years ago when he was running, and he's certainly not doing that now. And he has a lot more support as well. You know, I mentioned that evangelical Christian gathering. Donald Trump was notably absent from that. And just a few days later, he had a town hall that was on Fox News, hosted by Sean Hannity, and, you know, was being asked these large questions about the race as a whole. So he's really running as the front-runner and, in a lot of ways, acting like he already is the nominee. So there's definitely a lane that he has carved out for himself, and he has a lot of support, obviously, as we've been saying, within the base in Iowa and the Republican Party as a whole.

DETROW: Clay Masters covering all of this and more for us from Iowa. Thanks so much.

MASTERS: Yeah. Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: And I know you're about to join a team from NPR to bike across the state of Iowa, so please hydrate.

MASTERS: I will. It's going to be very hot in Iowa. Thanks for the tip.

DETROW: Thanks, Clay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR