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Trump backs out of Arizona fundraiser after allegations surface against state GOP chair

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Former President Trump was supposed to be in Phoenix last night to headline an important fundraiser for the Arizona Republican Party, but he backed out after allegations came to light concerning the chair of the Arizona Republican Party and an attempt to induce a Trump loyalist, Republican Kari Lake, to stay out of this year's U.S. Senate race. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Ben Giles joins us. Ben, thanks so much for being with us.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: For sure.

SIMON: And let's be blunt. Accusations of a bribe here, right?

GILES: Right. There is a recording of a conversation between Kari Lake and the chair of the GOP, Jeff DeWit, that was leaked to the Daily Mail of London. In it, you can hear DeWit asking for Lake's discretion while he passes on offers from, in his own words, people back east to coax Lake to stay out of this year's U.S. Senate race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF DEWIT: There are very powerful people who want to keep you out of this.

KARI LAKE: I know they do.

DEWIT: But they're willing to put their money where their mouth is in a big way.

GILES: It's important to note what's happening here isn't illegal. Party officials do often try to clear the field of candidates they're concerned can't win an election. Elsewhere in that 10-minute recording, DeWit raised concerns about Lake's electability and her fundraising prowess. Lake still denies her loss to Democrat Katie Hobbs in the race for Arizona governor in 2022. And Arizona is a state with a lot of independent voters who have soured on some of the Republican Party's election denialism. So DeWit's concerns are valid. But still, it's unsavory to have these backroom deals out in public.

SIMON: And Jeff DeWit has resigned as chair of the Arizona Republican Party, yes?

GILES: Right. DeWit says he was blackmailed by Lake. He says she threatened to release more conversations she secretly recorded of herself with DeWit. Advisers for Lake have denied this, that - the blackmail threat. And Lake has denied that she was the source of the audio leaked to the Daily Mail.

SIMON: But what did she say about the tape?

GILES: Lake characterized the conversation as an example of just how swampy D.C. is. She said it shows that candidates like her and Trump are a threat to a corrupt system, and she lumped DeWit in as part of that corruption.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAKE: He tried to act like the behavior you heard on that audio is normal communication amongst friends. It's disgusting.

GILES: She also turned it into a fundraising opportunity by directing followers of that livestream you just heard to her campaign website.

SIMON: And how does Donald Trump explain pulling out of the Arizona Republican Party fundraiser?

GILES: So a Trump spokesman said the president was busy in court on Friday and that's why he had to cancel. But as we saw yesterday, Trump initially stormed out of the courtroom during closing arguments in that defamation case before eventually storming back in. And I should note that case did not go in the president's favor. Trump was ordered to pay roughly $83 million in defamation damages to E. Jean Carroll. It's safe to assume he wasn't interested in making a public appearance last night.

SIMON: Where does the Arizona Republican Party go from here?

GILES: Well, it appears that a MAGA loyalist, Lake, is firmly in control, at least from behind the scenes. There's actually a state party organizing meeting happening later this morning. I expect there will be a vote on a motion to replace DeWit, likely with someone on better terms with Lake, but that might not be a boon for the party's overall health. DeWit was, himself, a Trump loyalist, and he was trying to thread the needle of pleasing MAGA Republicans and some of Arizona's more establishment Republican base. Those attempts to please everyone just wound up leaving a lot of people dissatisfied with the Republican Party.

The Arizona GOP has struggled to fundraise in the wake of successive losses in statewide races, like Trump's loss to Biden in 2020 and Lake's loss for governor in 2022. And party officials had to cancel last night's fundraiser after Trump bailed. And now they're issuing refunds to those who bought tickets to see the former president.

SIMON: Ben Giles of member station KJZZ in Phoenix. Ben, thanks so much for being with us.

GILES: Thanks, 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.

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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.
Ben Giles
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