WASHINGTON — A coalition of two progressive groups will launch a paid advertising campaign on Friday targeting eight moderate Republican senators, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, demanding an independent investigation into whether President Trump colluded with Russia to influence the U.S. election. It's among the signs that Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey could have immediate political repercussions for his party.
Democrats in Congress have little leverage to force an independent commission or the appointment of a special counsel. Yet much like outside progressive groups organized around the unpopular House health care bill, they may have the power to make Russia a second major political liability for GOP lawmakers hesitant to back an independent commission or special prosecutor to investigate Trump’s potential ties to Russia. The groups, End Citizens United and Every Voice, say the campaign will be ongoing and they may expand their targets to additional Republicans. The campaign will also include polling and grassroots actions.
Town halls are another example of how quickly the issue is becoming a flash point for Republicans. They include forums this week by Rep. David Brat of Virginia and Rep. Tom MacArthur’s contentious town hall in New Jersey in which Russia and health care dominated the two-hour forum.
Finally, in Virginia, former Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat running for governor, wasted less than 24 hours in targeting his Republican competitor over the Comey firing. The Republican, Ed Gillespie, hasn’t spoken out on Comey’s sudden dismissal this week after he reportedly requested more resources to dig into potential ties between Trump associates and Russia. Virginia holds its gubernatorial elections in odd years.
Perriello, a former Democratic congressman, said in a Wednesday statement that Gillespie is refusing to “stand up to do the right thing” by calling for a special prosecutor as the country heads toward a “constitutional crisis.”
So far, Republican leaders led by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are rejecting an independent counsel in favor of pursuing existing House and Senate probes. Yet veteran Republican campaign strategists see political peril ahead as additional revelations about potential ties between Trump officials and the Russian campaign to influence the U.S. election continue to surface. That’s a particular risk after the Senate Intelligence Committee this week subpoenaed former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had previously requested immunity in exchange for his testimony.
“It’s vital that the party not handcuff themselves to Donald Trump,” said John Weaver, a former top adviser to the presidential campaigns of Senator John McCain, R-Ariz, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “We’re ultimately going to have a special prosecutor. I don’t know why Republicans can’t read the next chapter in the book,” he said. “You’re going to see more and more Republicans coming to this conclusion.”
On Wednesday a number of Republicans, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said they were troubled by Comey’s sudden dismissal, while rejecting the idea of a special prosecutor.
Republicans argue that the history of special prosecutors is checkered, including the Ken Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton that came to be seen as political. “Historically special prosecutors go way beyond the scope” of duty, said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and former top adviser on Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. “McConnell’s staked out his ground, that’s just not gonna happen,” said Tyler, while allowing the possibility of an independent commission that could work in parallel to the FBI's work.
Picking Comey's successor
Democrats say the fact that Trump will appoint Comey’s successor is a clear indication that there is a conflict of interest and no choice but to put the matter to an independent counsel. Seeking to avoid that step, Republicans quickly ramped up their existing Senate-led investigation into Russia by issuing a subpoena for Flynn and sending a request to the Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit for any information on Trump and his top aides.
For Senate Democrats, whom Republicans need to pass any major legislation, that's not going far enough. “We are going hard on” demanding a special prosecutor, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “It’s the only way,” she said, saying Trump has jeopardized the nation’s democracy by trying to control the nature of the FBI’s work.
Senate Democrats don’t have the votes to block Trump’s next FBI director. But they can inflict political pain by gumming up the works of the Senate, where Republicans need Democrats to pass major legislation, while continuing to pressure them back home.
“The constitutional crisis looming ahead of us if there is no special prosecutor, if the objectivity and independence of our justice system is imperiled, will be a barrier to accomplishing anything” in Congress, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Judiciary Committee. “There is a fundamental question about the rule of law and the trust and credibility of this administration,” he said.
Particularly after Trump's hasty firing of Comey, there are parallels being drawn between the president’s Russia ties and the Watergate burglary investigation that felled former President Richard Nixon, who resigned from office after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment.
Yet during Watergate, Democrats controlled Congress, a big difference with the current controversy. Thomas A. Schwartz, a historian at Vanderbilt University, said it’s highly unlikely that a special counsel will be named in this moment. “It’s possible that Republican leaders like John McCain and Lindsey Graham could decide to break ranks with their party if public and political pressure ramped up considerably,” Schwartz says. “But unless there is significant public pressure to get a special counsel, Trump is probably safe," he said.
"If there are other major shoes to drop I think a lot of Republicans who may well now be on the fence could go in that direction," said Mike Allen, a former top aide in the George W. Bush administration. "So far because Democrats have really made it the banner under which they are flying I think that instinctively makes some Republicans oppose it," he said. At least for now, "it's a shirts versus skins thing."
In the meantime, Democrats appear prepared to pursue a two-pronged strategy of applying pressure both in Congress and in the home districts and states of lawmakers. On Thursday, Perriello continued to pound Gillespie on Twitter. Perriello faces Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in the June 13 primary and Gillespie is a leading candidate in the GOP primary that day.
In Congress, Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat, is meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s constituents on Friday at a United Auto Workers hall in Kenosha as part of a new initiative organized by progressives dubbed “adopt a district.” That's where Democrats meet with the constituents of neighboring Republicans. In southern Arizona on Wednesday, Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat, held a town hall in the district of Rep. Martha McSally, a neighboring Republican, in which he hammered her on the Russia issue. In a statement, McSally has called Comey’s firing “deeply concerning” and said the investigations must be “completed without political interference.” That’s short of calling for a special prosecutor.
“She’s shown she does not have the courage to stand up to Donald Trump,” including “the investigation into the Russian collusion in our election system,” Gallego said in a conference call ahead of his visit.
Weaver, the former Republican campaign adviser, drew parallels between currently hesitant members of Congress and Republicans during Watergate, when a number of Republican senators initially opposed articles of impeachment against Nixon.
“There will be a point in our party that a Barry Goldwater or a Howard Baker will have to emerge that has the standing within the party that says this is too far. We cannot support it," said Weaver. “You would think it would be based on principle," he said, but unfortunately “there’s no interest like self-interest,” he said. “We’re getting there.”