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What Trump told NPR about the Republican party before he hung up

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Former President Trump spoke to NPR this week. But when he was pressed on the lies that he continues to tell about his loss in the 2020 presidential election, he abruptly ended the interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Mr. President, if I...

DONALD TRUMP: Look, Steve, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

INSKEEP: Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. One more question - I want to ask about a court hearing yesterday on January 6. Judge Amit Mehta - he's gone. OK.

SHAPIRO: The interview was scheduled for 15 minutes but lasted only about nine. In that short time, a clear rift was revealed between Trump and some Republican senators who've spoken out against his election lies and confirming the truth that President Biden won. Here is his response when asked about South Dakota Republican Senator Mike Rounds. This weekend, Rounds said unequivocally that Trump lost, that Republicans should move on and that it's a disadvantage for them to keep talking about it.

INSKEEP: Why is it that you think that the vast majority of your allies in the United States Senate are not standing behind you? We did have that statement by Mike Rounds.

TRUMP: Because Mitch McConnell is a loser. And frankly, Mitch McConnell, if he were on the other side, and if Schumer were put in his position, he would have been fighting this like you've never seen before. He would have been fighting this.

SHAPIRO: We want to dig further into that divide among Republicans. And so we're joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hi there.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about this interview and what appears to be a sharp difference between Trump, and in particular the Republican Senate leader - the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell.

LIASSON: Right. They don't like each other. And Mitch McConnell spoke out this week, said Mike Rounds was right; Trump lost. But we are seeing this debate inside the Republican Party. There are few people who are willing to speak out and tell the truth versus three-quarters of the Republican base who believes the lie that Trump tells that somehow he was the real winner of the 2020 election. And it's interesting - what Mike Rounds said is that if we tell people there was cheating, we're going to put ourselves at a disadvantage. He wasn't saying that having three-quarters of Republican voters believe that the last election was illegitimate is bad for democracy. He's saying that it will be - put us at a political disadvantage. But there are other Republicans who say it's really important to keep faith with the lie because it helps them raise money. It helps them motivate voters. And kind of avenging the steal has become part of the identity of the - being part of the Republican base. This debate about Trump is not that much different than the one that's been going on for five years, which is net-net-net (ph), is Trump better or worse for the Republican Party?

SHAPIRO: Why do you think this divide is happening now, a year after the insurrection, almost a year after the inauguration? I mean, is this strategic on McConnell's part?

LIASSON: Well, you'd be hard pressed to say anything McConnell does isn't strategic. But I think in terms of Mike Rounds, he's not up for another five years. I think the Republican establishment wants to do two things at once. On the one hand, Trump brings in a lot of new voters to the party - white working-class voters. He motivates them. On the other hand, Republicans don't want to offend suburban swing voters or the corporate community. So they don't want to turn off people who know it's a lie, but they want to keep the faith with the people who believe in the lie. And that's the balancing act of the Republican Party today. It's kind of the latest iteration of the Faustian bargain that Republicans have made with Trump all along.

SHAPIRO: Well, speaking of strategic decisions, let's talk about why Trump may have decided to do an interview with NPR after six years of saying no. He's only done a handful of mainstream media interviews since leaving office. Has his influence changed since he's been taken off major social media platforms?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, I have no idea why he agreed to do an interview with NPR. But I think his influence has only grown inside the party. Whether or not getting - being banned from social media, at least temporarily, was a good thing or a bad thing is being debated inside of both parties because absence has a way of making the heart grow fonder. And for some people, Trump not being in their face 24/7, reminding them about all the things they don't like about him, all the things that they find offensive or obnoxious, has been a good thing for him. His favorability rating has inched up. I'm not saying he's rehabilitated himself. But there is a silver lining because for Democrats, they don't have the foil of Trump out there every day. And the other thing that's interesting is that some of this is by Trump's choice. If he wanted more attention, he could get it. He could give more interviews. He could call the cameras to Mar-a-Lago every single day. But maybe he understands also that a lower profile is a good thing for him.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.