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Week in politics: Trump surrenders in Georgia; first Republican presidential debate

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And to use an overworked phrase - a week from history. But it's true this time - a former president booked, fingerprinted and had his mugshot taken and a debate of other Republican contenders which did not include the indicted frontrunner and a plane crash in Russia. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: Mr. Trump surrendered on Thursday, booked - Georgia's Fulton County Jail - fingerprinted, mugshot taken in connection to charges he was part of a coordinated effort to pressure Georgia officials to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election. I got no better question than to say, what do you think, Ron?

ELVING: Well, Donald Trump has been a kind of factory of firsts, often of the dubious kind. Now it seems we will have this mugshot before us, looming in perpetuity. It captures all the defiance, all the anger, and perhaps that means it captures his appeal, at least for some voters. It is, in fact, a kind of political Rorschach test. What you see has to do with your own associations and beliefs. Do you see a hardened criminal? Or is this your heroic champion, steadfast in your cause, ready to fight for you?

SIMON: Mr. Trump, of course, decided not to take part in Wednesday's Republican Party debate. But let's just say his presence was felt, wasn't it?

ELVING: He decided to restrain his urge to perform for once, and he looks vindicated in that he dominated the event in absentia. Post-debate polls show no damage to his huge lead over the pack, and most of the other candidates are perceived by the public in relation to Trump. So why bother to be diminished by verbal combat with them or risk being damaged in the demolition derby?

SIMON: Did you notice any standout performances in the debate?

ELVING: I do think Nikki Haley helped herself in that debate, which aired on Fox News, especially in this exchange with the rather hyper Vivek Ramaswamy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: I wish you well in your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon.

NIKKI HALEY: You know, I'm not on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon...

RAMASWAMY: But the fact of the matter...

HALEY: And you know, you have put down everybody on this stage, but...

RAMASWAMY: Boeing came off of it. But you've been pushing this lie. You've been pushing this lie all week, Nikki.

HALEY: ...But you know what? You want to go and defund Israel. You want to give Taiwan to China.

RAMASWAMY: OK, let me address that. I'm glad you brought that up.

HALEY: You want to go and give Ukraine to Russia.

RAMASWAMY: I'm going to address each of those right now.

(CHEERING)

RAMASWAMY: This is the false lies of a professional politician.

HALEY: You would make America less safe.

RAMASWAMY: There you have it.

HALEY: Under your watch, you would make America less safe.

RAMASWAMY: So the reality is...

HALEY: You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.

RAMASWAMY: Let me - and you know what?

ELVING: Ramaswamy stood out from the pack, even if only by being over the top. Ron DeSantis, by contrast, seemed to recede into the pack, overprogrammed and still ill at ease. Mike Pence might be misreading the white evangelicals he is so earnestly trying to represent. They may not be quite as religious, strictly speaking, as he wants them to be.

SIMON: Also this week, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said he'd veto a sweeping Republican elections bill that would allow for partisan poll observers and end the grace period for voting by mail. What does this indicate for other efforts by Republicans in other states?

ELVING: We're going to need some time to see how this plays out in North Carolina. For starters, will Cooper prevail, or will he be overridden by Republican supermajorities in that legislature? And will there be a moment when swing voters in that state and elsewhere realize that one party is trying to constrict the voting process while the other tries to open it up? And how will they react to that?

SIMON: Finally, in the time we have left - a lot of details still missing about the plane crash that that may or may not have killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group. The Kremlin denies any involvement while saying, oh, we're sorry about his death. The response from the White House has been, I think we can safely say, muted. What do you detect?

ELVING: It's hard to imagine anyone in Russia or anywhere else truly believing this was an accident. And we all seem to have been expecting it. Our own national security people, including the president, seemed to predict it months ago. We have been conditioned to expect an autocrat such as Putin to behave this way. It's how those with absolute power have treated their opposition since the beginning of government, and surely the Russians seem conditioned to it, resigned to it.

We expect something different in our democracy with an enforceable constitution. We have the rule of law. It applies even to the national leader. The contrast between that and what happened in Russia has rarely been so stark as it was this week.

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.