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House Republicans wanted to focus on their agenda. Trump dominates the conversation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

House Republicans are meeting at a retreat in Orlando, Fla., this week. They had planned to showcase their agenda now that they're in the majority, but former President Trump is dominating the conversation. Manhattan's district attorney is considering charging Trump in connection with hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Now, there has been no official announcement of any plans for an indictment, but Trump claims that he will be arrested as early as Tuesday.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson in Washington, D.C., and congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh in Orlando join us now to discuss the latest. Hey to both of you.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: All right. Carrie, let's start with you. Can you just bring us up to speed here? Why is Trump making this claim that he could be indicted this week?

JOHNSON: Well, we know the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, has been looking into whether Trump broke the law by paying hush money to Stormy Daniels. She claims she had an affair with Trump years ago, and Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, paid her $130,000 in exchange for her silence during a key moment in his 2016 presidential campaign. Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty to federal charges. Now this New York grand jury is examining how he was reimbursed and if that method may have violated the law.

If Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to set up those payments, it means Trump might be held responsible for making false records. And Trump, we know, was invited to testify before this grand jury. That's usually the final step before any kind of indictment. But it's really up to the grand jurors and Alvin Bragg about whether they're going to press ahead with those charges.

CHANG: Right. OK. And, Deirdre, what's the view from Orlando? Like, how are House Republicans reacting to Trump's claim that he will be indicted?

WALSH: They're really largely coming to Trump's defense. A lot of Republicans here are slamming Bragg's probe. They say it's politically motivated. Like you said, Ailsa, they had come to this retreat in Florida hoping to talk about their first three months running the House, controlling the House and their plans to pass other legislation this year on things like border security and the fentanyl crisis. But the dynamic that was in place when Trump was in the White House is again at play here. His move to claim on social media he was going to be arrested and to urge his supporters to protest thrust this issue front and center.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy fielded several questions about Trump last night at the kickoff press conference here. He did argue that any indictment from Bragg wouldn't stand up in court and again called it all politically motivated. But McCarthy did break with the former president over Trump's message to his supporters that they should protest. The speaker disagreed when he was asked about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: I don't think people should protest this now. He's not talking in a harmful way. And nobody should. Nobody should harm one another.

CHANG: And I understand, Deirdre, that House Republicans have launched their own probe of the Manhattan DA.

WALSH: That's right. Three committee chairmen today launched their own investigation. Jim Jordan of judiciary, Jim Comer of oversight and Bryan Steil of the House Administration Committee sent a joint letter to Bragg today, demanding documents and testimony. They argued in this letter that any indictment in this case was basically an unprecedented abuse of his authority, and they said it would interfere in the 2024 presidential election. Chairman Jordan just spoke to reporters a little bit ago and called the investigation a sham. And he says he wants to know if there are any federal funds involved in Bragg's probe. They're asking Bragg to appear before a House panel as soon as possible, and they gave him a Thursday deadline to respond.

CHANG: Wow. OK. So, Carrie, are they likely to get what they want here - that is, actual testimony from Bragg while he is still investigating the former president?

JOHNSON: They shouldn't hold their breath, Ailsa. It's unlikely Bragg or the grand jury would want to share any details at this very sensitive stage. And we do have some precedent for this. Congress has been demanding details from the U.S. Justice Department about its probe of the President's son, Hunter Biden. DOJ has basically told lawmakers they balance oversight requests from the Hill against the interest of protecting the investigation and its integrity. DOJ won't confirm or deny pending investigations or provide any nonpublic information to Congress about them, so I don't think they're going to get very much out of Alvin Bragg either.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, Deirdre, let me ask you, what do you think this whole episode tells us about Trump's political standing right now in the Republican Party?

WALSH: I think just the rush from all corners of the House Republican Conference to defend Trump just shows he's the dominant figure in the party. There was a really interesting moment today when Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart was asked about Trump's place in the party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIO DIAZ-BALART: Obviously, we have - I have great respect for the former president of the United States. But as far as, you know, who the leader of the party is, I will tell you right now, I think the leader of the party is the speaker of the House.

WALSH: But other Trump supporters are warning if Republicans don't stand with Trump, voters will backlash - they will hear backlash from voters.

CHANG: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh and Carrie Johnson. Thank you to both of you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

WALSH: Thanks. 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.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.