He’s not the best-known member of Congress. In fact, before his indictment Wednesday on insider trading, you may not have ever heard of Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.). But now that he’s facing serious federal charges that he used his position of power to help his family avoid a financial hit, the door has opened for Democrats to try to characterize the Republican Party in the era of President Trump as corrupt. And — surprise! — that’s exactly what Democrats are trying to do.
“The charges against Congressman Collins show the rampant culture of corruption and self-enrichment among Republicans in Washington today,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) fired off in a statement before prosecutors had even held a news conference to explain what they think Collins did wrong.
“Collins' arrest on securities fraud, wire fraud and false statements is emblematic of the corruption and twisted priorities of today’s Republican Party,” said House Democrats' campaign committee in a statement.
Democrats were helped along by some serious charges from federal prosecutors in New York. “Congressman Collins violated his duty to keep innate information secret,” said Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a news conference Wednesday. He accused Collins of tipping off his son and family and a friend to trade stock in a biotech company before drug trial results caused the stock to drop, saving some $768,000. The trade happened on privileged information that Collins would have gotten via his role on the company’s board of directors, Berman alleged, which is a major legal no-no.
“These charges are a reminder that this is a nation of laws and that everybody stands equal before the bar of justice,” Berman told reporters. Collins has denied any wrongdoing.
There’s no indication that Collins’s legal troubles have any connection to the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling. But that unrelated scandal is a big reason Democrats feel like they can credibly use Collins to paint almost an entire party as, well, corrupt. Trump and his staunchest allies’ ethical and legal problems, even if unconnected, are piling up.
Collins was one of Trump’s first congressional supporters. Another one, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), is under a criminal FBI investigation for allegedly using campaign funds to shower his family and friends with gifts.
This is also all happening in the middle of a can’t-look-away criminal trial into Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Prosecutors have put alleged unethical behavior from Manafort — and admitted unethical behavior from his No. 2, Rick Gates — on display for the world: everything from lying about their overseas accounts, to getting other people to lie for them, to, in Gates’s case, carrying out a transatlantic affair. Gates was Manafort’s No. 2 on the Trump campaign and stayed on after Manafort left.
These charges are technically unrelated to potential Trump campaign-Russia collusion, but the narrative shaping up in the trial is a potentially damning one for Trump: Maybe Trump did not hire the best people to run his campaign.
Trump’s critics have lots of fodder to carry that narrative over into his hiring decisions as president.
A year and a half into being president, Trump has gotten rid of two Cabinet secretaries over alleged ethical violations (Tom Price and Scott Pruitt); his national security adviser for lying about his Russia contacts (Michael Flynn); a top White House aide over alleged allegations that he assaulted two of his ex-wives (Rob Porter); and he demoted his White House doctor who was accused of drinking on the job (Ronny L. Jackson, a holdover from the Obama administration) after the Senate wouldn’t confirm Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Then you get into the charges in the Russia investigation that have ensnared Trump officials. Four former Trump campaign officials or advisers have been charged in the Russia investigation, mostly for lying to investigators. All of them have pleaded guilty save Manafort.
And of course, two separate independent investigations have accused Trump himself of wrongdoing. Most seriously, he’s under investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for potentially obstructing the Russia investigation. New York’s attorney general sued Trump and his three oldest children, alleging the president used his namesake charity to benefit himself financially and politically. The stunning lawsuit alleges that the president of the United States should be banned from running any charity in New York for a decade because he was so reckless and unethical with his.
Trials, lawsuits and investigations are ongoing. But they are threads that are getting easier for Trump’s critics to tie into a bumper-sticker argument that Republicans are out for themselves. Collins may be a minor figure in all this, but his legal troubles land at the exact right time to make him a poster child for that political attack.