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How much will voters consider the Trump criminal trial in November?


Paul Begala joins us again. He's a political commentator and strategist and the former chief strategist for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992, all these years later, still at work advising pro-Biden super PACs and some nonprofits. Mr. Begala, welcome back.

PAUL BEGALA: Hey, Steve, good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: What do you make of the findings we just heard from Domenico?

BEGALA: Well, at one level, it's a little depressing - isn't it? - that people don't care if a former president is convicted. But more fundamentally, I think people are right. You know, a presidential election is not a reward for good character. It is a job interview. And the candidates, both of them, got to get their message back to, what are you going to do for me? And if Mr. Trump is led away in manacles, it's not going to educate a child, it's not going to extend health care to a family, it's not going to create a job. It is largely irrelevant to people's real lives.

INSKEEP: Wow, this is interesting. And I'm particularly thinking about that 1992 Clinton campaign. There were allegations of an affair you had to deal with, and yet people stuck with Bill Clinton in the end. I wonder if some people then, in 1992, were making the same kind of calculations you're describing here in 2024.

BEGALA: I think so. I think the threat for Mr. Trump is real, right? He could be in an orange jumpsuit. But the threat to the Democrats is real as well, which is, you know - Darrell Royal, the old football coach at the University of Texas, used to say I don't throw the ball because three things can happen and two of them are bad.

INSKEEP: Interception or an incompletion. Right. Go on.

BEGALA: Right. The two things that can happen that are bad for the Democrats are an acquittal or a hung jury, which is, I think, politically the functional equivalent.

INSKEEP: Ah, so a guilty verdict doesn't help them much, and any other kind of judgment could be very bad for Democrats, you're saying.

BEGALA: Right. I think what they ought to do, and I think what they're doing - I've been critical of the Biden campaign, but Biden and his campaign have been pretty good about staying away from the trial. I think they ought to take the next step, and they ought to put Trump on political trial for political crimes against the middle class, right? Seventy-four percent don't care if he's convicted of a crime. But I guarantee 74% do care if he said he wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, which the Democrats can see in his budgets that he produced when he was president, or that he engineered the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade. I mean, there's a lot of things they could put him on trial for, metaphorically speaking, that would really move a lot of voters.

INSKEEP: You know, it's really interesting. As you're talking, I'm thinking about a statement by Mitt Romney, the former presidential candidate, current senator - or retiring senator - who said that Biden some time back should have pardoned Trump, which would show that Biden was the bigger man and that he wasn't afraid of Donald Trump. I wonder if you think that might have been politically better for the current president, to pardon Trump and get this out of the way and focus instead on the issues that you're saying Biden should be focusing the public on.

BEGALA: Well, the problem with that is, first, legal. The president has no power to pardon Mr. Trump or any American from state charges. He's on trial in New York. He's charged in Georgia. But beyond that, there is a process. Joe Biden is a lawyer, and he's a good one. And the president - Mr. Trump has not applied for a pardon. He hasn't admitted his guilt. He hasn't met any of the standards that other presidents and this president use to decide whether to grant a pardon. So, I mean, I just think Senator Romney's heart may be in the right place, but it's just not a practical reality.

INSKEEP: I don't know that Richard Nixon admitted guilt when Gerald Ford pardoned him, though, in 1974.

BEGALA: That's a good point, but accepting it is an admission of guilt. It simply is.

INSKEEP: I gotcha.

BEGALA: But you're right, Nixon never said the magic words. You're right.

INSKEEP: I gotcha. OK, last point here. We heard from Domenico about college-educated white voters. And Domenico has been following polling for some months, and he sees them moving behind Biden - more positive than other signs for Biden. What do you see going on there?

BEGALA: That is astonishing. Domenico is right to focus on that. Years ago when I was working for Bill Clinton, we had a shorthand phrase for college-educated white voters. We called them Republicans. Clinton, Obama, they couldn't crack the code with them. Biden has. I mean, he has real problems with young voters. He has real problems with Black voters. He is addressing them, I think. He's got the largest ad campaign in history targeting Black voters already up now, and it's not even June yet. But he is compensating by getting those college-educated voters that could really decide the election 'cause they are going to vote.

INSKEEP: Paul Begala is a political commentator, also served as the chief strategist for Bill Clinton. And, Mr. Begala, it's always a pleasure to hear from you here. Thanks for your insights.

BEGALA: Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Take care. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.