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The timing and circumstances of Trump's criminal trial have made it inherently political


At the courthouse yesterday, former President Trump said of his criminal conviction, quote, "the real verdict is going to be November 5 by the people." President Biden's campaign said, quote, "there is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office - at the ballot box." So where they agree is the people decide. Jim Messina knows something about the decisions people make because he was the campaign manager for former President Barack Obama. And he's on the line from the West Coast, where it's really darn early. Welcome to the program.

JIM MESSINA: Good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Thanks for doing it. Thanks for doing it. So if you were Biden's campaign manager now, how would this verdict factor into your campaign strategy, if at all?

MESSINA: Well, look, it's not a silver bullet. You know, the idea that a conviction would disqualify Trump simply isn't true. At the same time, it's a historic moment. I mean, you have a former president convicted of 34 felonies yesterday. And so it's a campaign's job to convince voters to turn out for Biden and remind people why they voted for Trump in the first place. And clearly, yesterday's conviction is helpful to that goal.

INSKEEP: Let me explore that a little bit. I think the conventional wisdom is that this verdict is not going to matter much, that people are dug in, that people say - in an NPR survey just the other day - that they are deciding on other matters. But it did feel like something happened yesterday that was meaningful. Do you think that this may change the atmosphere in ways that are hard to predict?

MESSINA: I do. And, you know, the election could come down to these voters I call double doubters, Steve, that have doubts about both candidates. And, you know, those are the people that are really up for grabs, so probably only 8- to 10% of Americans who are really undecided on this race. And I think yesterday just serves the simple moment of reminding these voters of the chaos and sort of discord that they didn't like about Trump in the first place. So I do think it reinforces people's concerns about him. Do I think it's a silver bullet? No. But I think it reminds people that if you don't want a convicted felon to have the nuclear codes, you better vote for Joe Biden in November.

INSKEEP: Wow, that's a bumper sticker for you. But I'm glad you mentioned the double doubters because I've been talking about that with folks on our Washington desk. Susan Davis, Mara Liasson have been listening in to focus groups of people who don't like either candidate. And they came away with an interesting insight. People don't seem to know anything that Joe Biden has done as president. It's widely said that people would like to hear some reason to vote for Joe Biden, and they don't know very much about anything that he's done.

MESSINA: I mean, that is true so far. Remember that swing - these swing voters you're talking about think about politics four minutes a week and have an average of 2 1/2 jobs, so they're busy. And it's the campaign's job to remind them of these historic things the president's gotten done. But then more importantly - and this was true for the Obama campaign, too - what voters really want to hear is what you're going to do for them in the future, where you're going to take them. And that's what the Biden campaign is focused on, and yesterday doesn't really change that for the Biden campaign.

INSKEEP: If you were advising the president, would you advise him in some way to get creative - do something to shake it up?

MESSINA: Well, I think they did that. I think the debate challenge was very creative and surprised people and said, you know, let's go have this fight in front of the American voters. And so I think that was a big moment, and I think it was the right decision to make, and I think that that could shake up this race as well.

INSKEEP: A lot of Democrats thought that Biden would begin to pull ahead by now, I think. He's still a little bit behind in polling. Are you surprised?

MESSINA: No. And I think historically, Barack Obama trailed at this exact same moment to Mitt Romney in 2012. People who thought this race was going to change were just a little pie in the sky. It's going to be very close the entire way. And, you know, this will be another close American election, like every four years, Steve.

INSKEEP: Jim Messina was campaign manager for former President Obama. It's a pleasure talking with you. Hope you get a nap.

MESSINA: Thanks. Take care.

INSKEEP: Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.
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