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Politics chat: Jan. 6 committee break; Trump, Pence at dueling rallies; Biden health

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Here in Washington, it feels like there are more political questions than answers these days. What might come of the January 6 investigation, and what might it all mean for the parties and their biggest players? Joining us now with some answers is Domenico Montanaro, NPR senior political editor and correspondent. Good morning, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning. And, of course, always the answers, right?

RASCOE: Yeah. I know you got them.

MONTANARO: (Laughter) We'll try.

RASCOE: You have them. So let's start with President Biden. He has COVID but is said to be doing well. Are there political consequences, though, of him getting COVID? I mean, people get it, but are there some political consequences?

MONTANARO: Right. Well, I mean, any time something major like this happens, it's a test for the White House - their communications team, for him. You know, how do they handle it? Are they transparent? Are they defensive? You know, so far, we've seen kind of the usual back-and-forth between a White House press corps and the White House with more questions. You know, we'd want answer - like how he got it, for example, and why, at 79, he's not setting an example and wearing, you know, masks, even in places where people are not - right? - I mean, overseas, for example, where they weren't expecting to wear them.

But very different than how Trump's White House handled it with the chaos and underselling of how bad it was and that Secret Service ride at the NIH, the National Institutes of Health. And there are masking questions here about the country more generally. What are people willing to do now with BA.5 - with the BA.5 variant on the rise?

RASCOE: So, you know, on to another topic, the January 6 committee's work is not finished. But what do we know about the impact of its work so far? Like, millions have watched these hearings, right?

MONTANARO: Yeah. In our latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, we saw about 6 in 10 people say that they're paying at least some attention to this. You know, we've seen some movement with independents. Even though everybody else seems to be locked in - Republicans haven't budged, like, one iota, for example - independents, we see 57% of them now saying that Trump is to blame for what happened on January 6. That's up nine points from last December. We also saw that 52% of independents now say that January 6 was an insurrection and a threat to democracy. That's also up nine points from last December. So we are seeing some movement, perhaps marginal. But you can't expect a whole lot more when the country is as locked in as it is in such a polarized way.

RASCOE: You know, you've been closely watching the hearings. Are there questions still lingering in your mind that you want the answers to?

MONTANARO: Well, I want to know, what does Liz Cheney know (laughter)? The vice chair from Wyoming - Republican.

RASCOE: Yeah. She is ready. She's ready to go.

MONTANARO: She always seems to have these bombs that she drops at the end of these hearings. Like, there's going to be another thing. She left us with a cliffhanger, you know, saying that she's - they're gathering more evidence, that they're now going to be, you know, doing more investigations through August. They're going to have hearings in September. And that really raised an eyebrow for me because I know that us and other reporters talking to people on Capitol Hill about whether or not the committee wanted to be holding hearings past August - initially, they really didn't want to because they didn't want to have a perception of playing politics and getting close to the elections.

But I think it's pretty clear that as more evidence has come forward, Liz Cheney and others on the committee have decided that they are going to jump that plank because they feel like the evidence is too important. And it's become pretty clear that the political, you know, welfare of the country, the government and them believing that President Trump - former President Trump is not fit to run the country has become a real goal to show the country that.

RASCOE: Domenico, former President Trump and former Vice President Pence had these dueling rallies last week in Arizona. Let's listen to a bit of their speeches. First, we'll hear Pence and then Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: I think this year could be bigger than 2010, the last time we retired Nancy Pelosi. And I'll tell you what. We're going to end Nancy Pelosi's speakership in 2022 once and for all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I ran twice. I won twice and did much better the second time than I did the first, getting millions more votes in 2020 than we got in 2016.

RASCOE: But that doesn't mean that you win. (Laughter) It just means you got more votes. So - but they're handling their speeches differently here. One's looking forward. Another one's looking back.

MONTANARO: Well, look, I mean, I think one of the things you can sort of even hear in those speeches is - I saw described - these described as Trump's event being like varsity and Pence is like the JV team because, you know, you can hear the crowds there and who's got the energy. And, you know, I think that with the Trump base, they have not abandoned him whatsoever. And that is the big thing between these two, that right now it's Trump who has the energy. But we're going to see a big showdown between now and next week about a primary, for example, in Arizona, where there are Trump-backed candidates and Pence-backed candidates who are kind of squaring off for the governor's race and other seats. And they all come down to these election lies.

RASCOE: You know, in the minute we have left, before we let you go, you mentioned primaries. Do you have any update for us?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you know, like we've seen in Maryland, for example, this past week, we saw a Trump-backed candidate become the Republican nominee for governor. And, you know, we saw Democrats kind of boost that candidate, which is playing with a little bit of fire. And I'm not sure if that's going to work nationally. And then in Arizona, like we said, you know, you've got Kari Lake, who's this Trump-backed candidate who's really been pushing the Trump election lies. But even her opponent has been continuing to sort of flirt with this line about the election not being fair.

RASCOE: That's NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thank you so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.