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.
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 midterm 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.”
Democrats also say the constant news coverage of the Russia probe also can benefit them because it has so consistently triggered angry tweets from a president that can rile up his base but also forces his party off-message.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, Trump himself has already made at least one effort to inject Russia into the midterm campaign via Twitter, when he took aim at Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein after she released the transcript of a closed-door Russia hearing.
“The fact that Sneaky Dianne Feinstein… would release testimony in such an underhanded and possibly illegal way… is a disgrace,” Trump wrote, adding: “Must have tough Primary!”
Some senior GOP leaders say they welcome a Russia-centric Democratic campaign that neglects kitchen-table issues like health care or the economy.
A large swath of the country is following Russia-related developments, Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, acknowledged. But Stivers said he doubts it will shape voter behavior.
“It doesn’t change people who are moderately against us to against us, and it doesn’t change people who are for us to against us,” he said. “It’s all noise.”
A former senior Trump White House official said the Russia probe is “not helpful,” but added: “Among the spectrum of problems to have, this is not cataclysmic.”
As the Manafort-Gates trial approaches, Republicans concede they’ll likely suffer political damage as cable television shows images of the former campaign aides entering and leaving the courtroom every day. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders can expect to face daily questions about each development in the trial. But Republicans say they will counter the grim publicity by noting the charges have nothing to do with Trump or the GOP field of candidates in 2018.
“No one is going to be out there defending Paul,” said the former White House staffer.
It is unclear how concerned Mueller may be about his probe’s political impact. The special counsel could face a dilemma similar to that of then- FBI director James Comey during the 2016 presidential campaign. Comey was harshly criticized by Democrats and Republicans for public statements about the status of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State.
But politics is also a recurring theme of special counsel probes, many of which stretch well outside the bounds of any two-year campaign cycle.
Nixon had already resigned from office by the 1974 midterms, but the lingering effects of Watergate still stung Republicans, who were crushed by a Democratic wave of more than 50 pick-ups in the House and Senate, and the members would become known as Watergate babies.
Republicans lost five House seats in 1998 amid their ultimately unsuccessful attempt to remove President Bill Clinton through impeachment, marking the first time in more than 170 years that the party out of power from the White House failed to gain seats in the middle of a president’s second term.