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Democrats’ newest midterm pitch: A crackdown on corruption

During a news conference on April 12, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on President Trump to fire EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. (Video: Reuters)

Democrats plan to highlight allegations of corruption surrounding the Trump administration — and a legislative agenda to prevent future abuses — as they continue rolling out their party platform ahead of November’s midterm elections.

The first planks of the “A Better Deal” platform, released last year, focused on the party’s economic agenda. Now, with questions about pay-to-play politics swirling around President Trump and his current and former aides, Democrats introduced new anti-corruption proposals Monday billed as “A Better Deal for Our Democracy.”

“Instead of delivering on his promise to drain the swamp, President Trump has become the swamp,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during a rollout event on the Capitol steps.

While the new agenda was only sketched out in broad terms Monday, it includes proposals that would eliminate loopholes that allow lobbyists and lawmakers to buy and sell influence without the public’s knowledge, allow big donors to influence the political process through unreported donations and to improve elections by eliminating partisan gerrymandering and implementing automatic voter registration.

The message, the Democrats said: Elect us in November to “clean up the chaos and corruption in Washington.”

One proposal — which would tighten the federal laws governing lobbying disclosures and foreign-agent registration — responds to the apparent sale of influence by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer. According to recently disclosed financial records, Cohen earned millions of dollars from companies that wanted to secure access to Trump’s inner circle in the early days after his 2016 win.

But Cohen never registered as a lobbyist or otherwise disclosed the payments — possibly because, under federal law, only those who spend more than 20 percent of their time on lobbying on behalf of a client must register as a lobbyist.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats would “close the Cohen loophole” to ensure any type of paid influence would have to be publicly reported. “Michael Cohen’s pay-to-play schemes are a stark reminder of the glaring need to take real action,” he said.

Another proposal could rewrite federal statutes that might have allowed lawmakers of both parties to skirt convictions on bribery and pay-to-play allegations — including former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and  Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). All were charged with fraud violations but then escaped conviction (due to a hung jury, in Menedez’s case) or had their convictions overturned after courts found that their actions were not criminal under the current letter of federal law.

That gave Republicans an opening to freshly criticize Menendez, who is seeking re-election this year. “Menendez needs to tell New Jerseyans whether he agrees that federal bribery laws need to be strengthened, or if he thinks corrupt politicians like himself should be able to walk free,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The new Democratic focus on corruption as a campaign message marks a return to a formula that helped put Democrats into the House majority in the 2006 midterm elections — after numerous scandals including the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham revelations put pay-to-play politics on the public’s political radar in a big way. Polling done after the election showed that the tide of corruption helped swing votes to Democrats, and the party’s official now sees signs of similar concerns among voters.

Several of the Democrats who spoke Monday attempted to connect the corruption allegations to a Republican governing agenda that has delivered outsize tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and dismantled financial and environmental regulations that aimed to protect average taxpayers.

Democrats are also preparing to highlight an apparent atmosphere of rule-bending, if not rule-breaking, in the Trump administration. Several Trump Cabinet members — including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, as well as former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price and former Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin — have been subject to official investigations of questionable spending on travel and other expenses.

What the agenda does not directly address is the pending investigations into Trump’s alleged ties to Russia and any possible reverberations. Top Democratic leaders have urged the probes of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller Jr. and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to run their course and have tamped down any suggestion that Trump might be indicted or impeached pending their outcomes.

Instead, Democrats are targeting old-fashioned self-dealing, influence-peddling, and graft.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped draft parts of the agenda and spoke at Monday’s event, said Democrats have no need to highlight the Russia probes.

“The atmospherics of it are so pervasive, people are living and breathing it every day,” he said in an interview. “What we’re saying to them is, ‘You know what? We need to clean the whole thing up.’ And against the backdrop of all this stuff that is happening, they know what that means. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”