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Trump indictments blot out the sun, and his GOP opponents are helping

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
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If it’s FRIDAY… Donald Trump pleads not guilty to illegally trying to overturn 2020 election… NYT/Siena poll shows Trump leading Ron DeSantis by 24 points in Iowa… Trump addresses Alabama GOP dinner at 8:20 pm ET and goes to South Carolina on Saturday… DeSantis stumps in Iowa… Tim Scott visits the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Ariz…. Mike Pence holds a town hall in New Hampshire… And the two expelled Tennessee Democrats win back their seats in special elections.

But FIRST... This week has been all about Donald Trump.

That’s what happens when a former president — and the current frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination — gets indicted and arraigned for the third time in less than five months. (And a likely fourth indictment appears to be just weeks away.)

And it’s the reality that Trump’s rivals, the media and the rest of the political world all confront: How can this 2024 presidential race be about anything other than Trump?

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley bemoaned all the attention on Trump in a radio interview Thursday, per NBC’s Greg Hyatt.

“Like most Americans, I’m tired of commenting on every Trump drama. I’ve lost track of whether this indictment is the third or fourth or the fifth. We should be focusing on how to stop China. We should be focusing on how to close the border. We need to be reversing Bidenomics,” Haley said.

She added, “I’ve said January 6th was a terrible day, I’ve also said Donald Trump bears some responsibility for what happened. But Trump did not attack the Capitol. It’s not a crime to say you think an election was stolen. He should not be prosecuted for that. I think the Justice Department has become way too political.”

Yet here’s the challenge for Haley and Trump’s other rivals: Trump’s legal situation is blotting out the sun, and if you aren’t going to comment on it, you’re missing out on the biggest political story in America right now.

And if you’re only commenting to defend Trump, is that just making his hold even stronger on the very GOP voters you’re hoping to bring onto your side?

(Also, if the GOP field doesn’t want to campaign against Trump’s legal problems, President Joe Biden and the Democrats will gladly do it come the general election.)

But the other reality is how Trump’s legal challenges have made him STRONGER with some GOP voters.

Check out this quote from an Iowa voter backing Ron DeSantis in the latest New York Times/Siena poll of that state (we have more on that poll below).

“Each indictment gets me leaning toward Trump,” said John-Charles Fish, 45, a Waukon, Iowa, social media consultant who said he still supported Mr. DeSantis, but barely. “It wouldn’t take much for me to change my mind,” he said.

Headline of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … Almost 400,000

That’s how many unique, online donors gave to former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign joint fundraising committee through June, according to recent Federal Election Commission data analyzed by NBC News

While the new data doesn’t include Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ online donors, it does show that Trump has a massive edge over his GOP rivals in this department, having about 10 times the unique online donors than nearest competitors through June. 

And as Trump’s legal woes sap money from his political orbit, this massive donor base will continue to be key for him. 

Read more on NBC

Eyes on 2024: Trump’s still the Hawkeye guy

Former President Donald Trump holds a more than a 20-point lead over the rest of the GOP field in Iowa, a new poll from the New York Times and Siena College shows

While Trump’s lead is significantly smaller in the paper’s Iowa poll than it was in a recent national poll it conducted, Trump’s 44% is more than double that of his closest challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s at 20%. 

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is in third with 9%, making this the second prominent Iowa poll showing him posting significantly better numbers in the state than his spot in national polling. Behind him is businessman Vivek Ramaswamy (5%), former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley (4%), former Vice President Mike Pence (3%) and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (1%). Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie finished under 1%. 

There’s some good news for the Trump alternatives in the poll — Scott’s favorable rating is on par with marks for both Trump and DeSantis. And Republicans were more likely to describe DeSantis as “moral,” “likable,” and “able to beat Joe Biden” than in the outlet’s recent poll of national Republicans. 

But the horserace underscores the dominant dynamic in the GOP race — Trump continues to lead big, and 44% support is well above the mark he’ll need to win January’s caucus if the field stays divided. 

In other campaign news…

Dems feeling (Act)blue: Politico digs into the decline in online fundraising among Democrats, and gives voice to some fears within the party that it could be indicative of “a lack of grassroots engagement [that] is a warning sign for Biden ahead of a tough election cycle.”

Another curriculum conundrum: The College Board said Thursday that Florida’s Department of Education has “effectively banned” Advanced Placement Psychology, arguing that it violates state law about restricting the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity, NBC News’ Matt Lavietes reports. 

Scott speeds to the border: South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott travels to the border between Arizona and Mexico to put a spotlight on immigration policy. 

House GOP makes Hunter the hunted: NBC News’ Scott Wong and Rebecca Kaplan report that “Hunter Biden’s business associate, Devon Archer, testified before the House Oversight Committee that he has no knowledge that then-Vice President Joe Biden changed U.S. foreign policy to help his son and that he’s not aware of any wrongdoing by the elder Biden.” But Archer did tell the committee Hunter put his father on the phone with business associates about 20 times, though the calls were brief and didn’t include discussions about business. 

Putting in the labor: A coalition of labor unions will spend at least $50 million to promote policies like universal child care and guaranteed paid leave that Democrats couldn’t get through Congress as part of their signature spending bill last year, NBC News’ Alex Seitz-Wald reports. 

Mixing work and, work: NBC News’ Henry J. Gomez reports on how Montana GOP Senate hopeful Tim Sheehy hasn’t stepped down from his job as the CEO of an aerospace company, despite company rules limiting political activity. The company told NBC News it’s adopted “additional internal protocols” since his bid but didn’t provide more specific details.   

Rallying behind Cuellar: Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the few Democrats who opposed some recent measures to expand abortion rights, unveiled endorsements from a slew of top House Democrats, including Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Cuellar has had a string of tough primary elections as progressives are frustrated with his stances on issues like abortion. 

Headed home: North Carolina GOP Rep. Dan Bishop said he will announce a bid for state attorney general Thursday instead of running for re-election. The Club for Growth PAC quickly endorsed him. 

A reckoning for Justice Democrats: HuffPost reports on how the progressive group Justice Democrats laid off almost half of its staff amid questions about its future. 

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world:

Ukraine is concerned “unrealistic expectations in media coverage” could “create a misleading narrative suggesting Ukraine cannot and will not win” its counteroffensive against Russian forces, NBC News’ Dan De Luce and Phil McCausland report.

A new RSV vaccine for infants won approval from a CDC advisory panel Thursday, which could mean the shot gets full CDC backing soon.