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Trump moves many campaign responsibilities to outside group, Turning Point Action

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Trump has made his first campaign stop since his conviction in a New York courtroom last week. He appeared yesterday at a megachurch in Phoenix with Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA. That's a youth-oriented, conservative mobilizing group. Turning Point is taking a significant new role with the Trump campaign this cycle, and we're joined now by two of our colleagues to tell us why this matters - NPR's Lisa Hagen, who was at the event in Phoenix, and NPR's Ximena Bustillo, who's been covering Arizona for the election, and she's here with me in the studio. Good morning to you both.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Good morning.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So I'm going to start with you, Ximena. Trump lost Arizona by about 11,000 votes in 2020. How active has his campaign been there this year?

BUSTILLO: Well, there just simply has been a limited presence, and particularly from Trump himself. He was scheduled to attend the Arizona GOP's annual dinner in January, but the event was canceled, following news of the chairman's resignation. There were also plans for him to visit in March and May, and he went to Ohio and stayed in New York instead. The campaign has told me that these last two were just scheduling conflicts, but investment has also been minimal. In 2020, Trump spent more than $2 million on advertisements between January 1 and June 6. So far in 2024, he has not spent any money at all, according to our analysis of ad data from the firm AdImpact. In a way, the group Turning Point Action is looking to fill that void, and they're coordinating with Trump canvassing efforts in Arizona, and in a few other swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan, as well.

MARTIN: So let me ask you about this. The door-knocking and the canvassing that people associate with, like, a normal presidential campaign, it's going to be turned over and coordinated with this outside group. Now, I have to ask - is this legal? And one of the reasons I'm asking is that conservative groups have been very aggressively critical - going after, in the past, progressive groups that do things like register voters - so is this legal?

BUSTILLO: Well, it is. So the Federal Election Commission issued an advisory opinion earlier this spring that said that it allows campaigns and outside groups - such as Turning Point Action - to coordinate on this kind of canvassing. The immediate response from the Trump campaign was to invite outside groups to coordinate.

MARTIN: So Lisa, let's go to you. You've been doing some reporting on Turning Point USA - give us a sense of how important this group is in the universe of conservative organizations.

HAGEN: It's really become a nexus for die-hard Trump supporters and conspiracists and, increasingly, far-right Christianity. Turning Point started as a student organization 12 years ago this week, actually, and it now has $80 million in revenue coming in as of last year, and a lot of that growth has happened - it's doubled and tripled since the pandemic and the org's massive shift towards the religious right.

MARTIN: So obviously, Arizona is an important state for the presidential election; Ximena's just talk to us about that. Why was the event at this church, and is there something significant about that?

HAGEN: Yes. Kirk's Turning Point organization has spent the last three years cultivating support for Trump in Arizona, and he's doing a lot of that at monthly meetings at this exact church. So specifically, he's been helping to fuse that support with people's Christian beliefs, and they've become inseparable here. We met Amber Bonias (ph), and she had two necklace pendants with Trump and Jesus on them outside the event.

AMBER BONIAS: We're all here for one cause, and that's for Trump and America and our values - our Judeo-Christian values - and what we stand on as a country.

HAGEN: So leaning into this blended religious identity looks to be, like, a really key component to Turning Point's campaigning strategy here, both in Arizona and across the country.

MARTIN: OK, but there have been religious components to, sort of, political organizing for decades - frankly, both on the left and the right - so is there something different about Turning Point's religious outreach?

HAGEN: Absolutely - great point. Unlike some of the religious political movements of the last several decades, what we see now with Kirk - and a significant number of Republicans, honestly - is not just a mission to get Christians involved in politics, but really to take over, or to take dominion over, the government, education, business, media, essentially, every part of culture, and this is not about denominations. It is about uniting around this particular vision of the future, and Trump's central role in making it happen.

MARTIN: So Ximena, final question to you. Ximena, why start in Arizona?

BUSTILLO: Well, Arizona is Turning Point's home - that's where it was based and created, but the Arizona strategy is truly important to watch in this election. Trump only lost the state by just over 11,000 votes, as you noted earlier, and there are a lot of top issues at play here. It is a border state, it has a very diverse economy and voter base, and an abortion ballot initiative will also be top of mind for voters, so it really is a testing ground for some of these strategies.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Ximena Bustillo - she was here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios - and Lisa Hagen, who is in Phoenix. Thank you both so much.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.

HAGEN: Thank you. 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.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Lisa Hagen
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.