Bad news for GOP: Mueller probe could collide with midterms
Robert Mueller’s Russia probe isn’t ending any time soon, and that’s bad news for President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans already bracing for a possible 2018 Democratic midterm wave.
While many Republicans insist the Trump-Russia saga is overblown, they worry headlines about federal indictments, high profile trials—and a potential blockbuster meeting between Mueller and Trump himself—could obscure their positive message ahead of November elections and threaten their House and Senate majorities.
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In an ominous development for Republicans, a federal judge overseeing the upcoming trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates rejected Mueller’s request to begin in May and instead outlined a scheduled start as soon as September or October — peak election season.
“The timing of the Manafort-Gates trial will dictate major coverage going into early voting,” said veteran Republican strategist John Weaver. “And this is without knowing for certain how many more indictments and how much closer this Siberian political cancer gets near the Oval Office.”
“It’s mood music that doesn’t help,” agreed a senior Republican campaign strategist working on several mid-term races. “Every day the party is talking about this investigation is a day they’re not talking about the economy and the tax cuts they provided and jobs and things that are successfully happening.”
A second GOP operative active in the midterm elections said there is no “good time” for a public trial of two of the president’s senior campaign officials. But, he added: “You’d rather it not be in the fall.”
And few observers believe Mueller is finished bringing criminal charges. The special counsel so far has kept under wraps any criminal charges until they’ve been filed, leaving Republicans nervous about the prospect that new indictments could land without warning against top Trump associates just as voters are making their decisions.
Mueller has also told Trump’s attorneys he’s interested in interviewing the president. Though such questioning would not occur in a public setting, it would be an historic event sure to generate blaring headlines.
Also sure to rock the political word: any potential pardons Trump might issue for former staffers ensnared in the Russia probe, including his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in December for lying to the FBI. Trump has refused to rule out such a move.
While Trump lawyers and aides downplay speculation that Trump might fire Mueller, Democrats say a “Saturday Night Massacre” akin to President Richard Nixon’s 1973 sacking of the first Watergate investigator could be a final straw for voters.
“I think that’d guarantee control of the House or Senate for us,” said former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
Whatever happens, said Michael Steel, a former spokesman to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, “Republicans will require iron discipline to stay focused on what the American people really care about: jobs the economy and tax reform.”
“Fortunately they’ve gotten plenty of practice over the past couple of years,” Steel added.
Democrats say they won’t focus their campaigns on the Russia investigations, seeing larger issue-based themes like health care and taxes as their ticket to returning to the majority in Congress for the first time since 2010. But they are not running away from what happened in 2016 either.
The Russia investigation, Democrats say, is likely going to keep coming up for Republicans, noting a town hall meeting last week in rural western Iowa at which Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley faced critical questions about his panel’s probe.
“Every member of Congress is going to have to answer for why they’re trying to sweep this under the rug, whether they were on the relevant committee or not,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for both House Democratic campaigns and Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in 2016. “They are the ones in control of Congress and they’re the ones in the driver’s seat behind any cover-up.”