Top Republican strategists on Monday were bracing for the political fallout they expected from the first indictments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Operatives focused on the midterm are worried that the indictments of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and guilty plea of his former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos related to conversations with Russian officials, were the beginning of events that could cast a pall over Republicans.
“No amount of spin from the White House is going to be able to get around this simple fact: The former chairman of the president’s campaign was just indicted. That’s real; it’s not fake news,” said a Republican strategist who, like others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
“It gives legitimacy to the investigation and is only first in what will likely be other shoes to drop going into 2018,” the strategist added.
But Democratic strategists cautioned their party against declaring victory prematurely, warning that the indictments did not immediately suggest to them that their party was necessarily in a better position to win control of Congress next year.
Indeed, with influential Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta a possible target of the Mueller probe, it could be a problem, at least to some degree, for both parties. Podesta, who did business with Manafort, resigned from his iconic lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, on Monday.
He is the brother of John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. A Democratic strategist working a targeted congressional race said it was “too early to tell” if the Mueller probe, now that it is bearing fruit, is good news for his party.
“Anyone who says otherwise is spinning you. The only thing I would guess for sure is that it’s certainly not bad for us, but hard to say if it’s good,” this strategist said.
Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates, who also served as a Trump campaign aide and stuck around long after Manafort departed, were indicted Monday in federal court by Mueller, the former FBI director serving as special counsel for the Russia investigation. Charges included money laundering and conspiracy against the U.S.
Trump swiftly dismissed the indictments as immaterial, insisting on Twitter that they proved that there was “NO COLLUSION” between his campaign and Russia. “It doesn’t have anything to do with us,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders added, during the daily briefing.
Indeed, there was nothing in the indictments to suggest collusion, although Papadopoulos’ guilty plea could complicate the president’s claim otherwise.
This wasn’t enough to assuage many Republicans.
In the near term, they’re concerned about the impact on Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia. The election is Nov. 7, and, locked in a tight race with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democrat, “this is the last thing Gillespie wanted to talk about,” the Republican strategist said.
Long term, the Trump’s national job approval numbers have plunged below 40 percent; and Democrats lead the generic ballot that asks voters which party should be in control of Congress by nearly 11 percentage points.
That is particularly worrisome for House Republicans. They’re defending a 24-seat majority, resting in part on 23 districts won by Democrat Hillary Clinton. The GOP’s 52-seat Senate majority is more secure.
But a Russia investigation that derails Trump, or blows up on Republicans in the middle of the midterm campaign, could imperil the party’s hopes of winning more Senate seats in what at the outset is a favorable map with several vulnerable Democratic-held seats — and holding the House majority.
“Most people recognize that this is just the beginning. The end is not in sight,” said a second Republican operative.
Republicans’ anxiety on this relates as much to how Trump reacts as to what might be uncovered.
The investigation could exonerate the president. Yet, Republicans fret that he could spend the next several months consumed by it, and amplifying it through his social media platforms. They point to Trump’s reaction on Twitter to the news of the first indictments as an example.
That could have a detrimental impact on GOP efforts to pass tax reform and other major legislation that requires strong message discipline, something often lacking from the White House, even under the best of circumstances.
“Republicans are strapping in for a long process that will cause Trump’s rage to escalate over the next several weeks,” a third GOP strategist said. That’s what Democrats are hoping for.
“It will drive Trump batty and distract from efforts to accomplish something on tax reform,” a second Democratic operative said. “Both [could] have a corrosive impact on the Republican base, and by next year, prove important.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., perhaps concerned, said during an interview with a local radio station on Monday that tax reform would be fine regardless. “We’re working on solving people’s problems,” he said.