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Week in politics: Biden cleared in classified documents case, Trump faces charges

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden began the week lashing out at Republican dysfunction in Congress. An appeals court then rejected former President Trump's argument he should have total immunity. But this weekend, the president is on the defensive after a special counsel questioned his memory and alertness. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Is it unusual for a special counsel to issue a nearly 400-page report concluding there are no grounds to prosecute a case but then add comments about the mental acuity of the person whose conduct they investigated?

ELVING: Is it unusual? Yes. But in this political era we're living through, so many things are happening that are literally unprecedented. Scott, we've all come to take unusual in stride. What we have here is a lot like when James Comey declined to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her emails but gave her a tongue lashing about them nonetheless. And now we have another Republican lawyer, a one-time Trump appointee tapped by Biden's Justice Department in an effort to fend off accusations of partisanship or prejudice.

And could it be this special counsel was feeling some heat as he prepared to announce his decision not to charge Biden with crimes? To a layman's eye here - and I'm not a lawyer, but it appears the prosecutor is disappointing half the country by not indicting the current president but also angering many of the current president's supporters by throwing in these digs and even bringing in the death of Biden's son, strongly implying that Biden's no longer up to the job physically, especially with regard to mental acuity, sounding somehow as though this special prosecutor was making an ad for the campaign. And to some degree, this actually has rallied Democrats around their guy.

SIMON: Donald Trump has been criminally indicted for mishandling classified materials. How is it that Donald Trump can confuse Speaker Pelosi with Nikki Haley; he can call Viktor Orban, who's the president of Hungary, the president of Turkey; he can be ordered to pay a court judgment of $83.3 million and not seem to suffer in the polls?

ELVING: Those gaffes have been noted. They don't seem to make a big difference in the polls. Possibly, Americans are not all that tuned into who is the leader of Hungary. They may not actually have heard or seen many of these remarks. As to its effect on Trump, I think it has limited his appeal to some people who might otherwise be supporting him, and it has cost him some big donors, some people who have walked away. But he continues to do well among small donors. And that points to a larger reality - the loyalty of his hardcore base.

For them, it seems no negative story matters. He has sold his legions his line, quote, "it's not me they're after; it's you." And maybe it was not that difficult to do that. Maybe his supporters were predisposed to believe that argument. They want to believe what they hear from Trump. They want to buy into the reality that he is selling, and he continues to persuade them to go with that belief rather than with anything else they hear.

SIMON: Mentioned the appeals court ruling at the top. The Supreme Court heard a Trump case this week. I've learned from the great Nina Totenberg not to assume how the Supreme Court will rule, but you were part of NPR's live coverage, Ron. What did you hear that you found might be telling about their ruling to come?

ELVING: Well, I have learned from Nina Totenberg, as well. And one notable question was missing. None of the nine justices asked a question about Trump engaging in insurrection. Now, if there were any real chance of them affirming the Colorado Supreme Court and throwing Trump off the ballot in that state or elsewhere, you would think they would have spent more time on that rather large elephant in the room, but it was not a focus of the proceeding. The Supreme Court here looks most likely to reverse the Colorado court.

There was a lot of chatter about this case and that case and things that happened in the 1800s. The key point was that even the Democratic appointees on the court, such as Justice Elena Kagan, had trouble imagining a world in which one state - in this case, Colorado - could determine, if only in theory, the ballot eligibility of a presidential candidate, and that would spread to all 50 states. Sounds pretty national, she said. And the court did not seem ready to do that.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.