President Trump and his allies on Wednesday ramped up their attacks on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, as Democratic leaders faced growing pressure to defend the legitimacy of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe.
The president said at the White House that “a lot of bad things have happened” during the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow and “we now call it ‘Spygate.’ You’re calling it ‘Spygate.’ ”
Some Democrats are alarmed their party is not doing more to counter Trump’s relentless attempts to undermine the probe by branding it a political attack on his presidency. They worry about paying a price at the ballot box in November if the public is not better educated about the investigation, which has resulted in charges against 19 people and five guilty pleas.
These Democrats are pressuring party leaders, who have mostly preferred to see their candidates talk about “kitchen table” issues, to be more aggressive in countering Trump’s messaging, warning they are letting the president define the issue for voters.
Jesse Ferguson, an aide in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said Democrats should lead with the charges filed in the Mueller investigation to show that crimes have been committed, despite Trump’s protestations.
“We have 22 indictments to point to. We didn’t have that in 2016,” he said. “That was literally ‘He said, she said.’ This is, ‘He said, but he lied, and here are the facts.’”
But the party has won special elections on conservative turf in Pennsylvania and Alabama by sticking to issues such as the economy and health care, and Democratic leaders are reluctant to break from this approach. They are worried that too much of a focus on the Russia investigation could backfire with voters tired of the partisan fights in Washington.
“I think there is much more of an obsession with this investigation inside the Beltway,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a member of leadership at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “You go home, and people don’t ask me about it.”
Trump said Wednesday that the FBI’s use of a confidential source to seek information from his campaign aides amounted to a major scandal. There is no evidence suggesting that a government source was embedded into Trump’s campaign, as the president has suggested.
The use of the confidential source is now at the fore of Trump and conservative lawmakers’ long-running feud with the Justice Department over Mueller’s investigation, which the president describes as a “witch hunt.”
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a recent addition to Trump’s legal team, said the president feels increasingly emboldened to talk about the investigation.
“He feels that public opinion has turned in his favor. Why is this still going on? Whatever they have — why don’t they conclude it?” he said.
Trump, meanwhile, is spending time fixated on building up a case against “spygate” and sees it as critical to upending the probe.
“We won’t rest until we get to the bottom of it,” Giuliani said.
A CNN poll found 17 percent of Republicans approved of Mueller in early May, down from 29 percent in March. It also found support for Trump testifying before Mueller’s investigation fell from 54 percent in March to 39 percent in May.
Some Republicans believe there could be a rallying effect in the midterms among Trump’s core supporters. Although he is not on the ballot, if Trump convinces them he is the target of an unjust investigation, it could motivate them to defend him by voting Republican.
In addition, they are seeking to raise the specter of Democrats moving to impeach Trump if they regain control of the House and Senate. White House and Republican National Committee officials said they hoped the prospect of impeachment would drive up support among base voters and boost fundraising.
Democrats need to gain 23 seats to win control of the House — a target that strategists in both parties believe is within reach. Some Democrats think the best offense is a good defense of Mueller and his investigation.
In tweets Tuesday, Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, warned that Democrats were losing the public argument about Mueller by not rallying behind a message about why the probe needs to continue.
“Dems have no message on the Russia investigation,” Bergmann wrote. “[They] are literally on the defensive ‘defending the investigation’ or ‘protecting Mueller,’ while the GOP is on offense attacking Mueller. But by focusing on the process, the public has forgotten what the investigation is all about!”
Some lawmakers said the party can easily talk about both the Russia investigation and the policies they say will improve voters’ lives.
“I think we can be the rule-of-law party and focus on economic issues,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), part of a new class of younger, more liberal lawmakers.
But many leading Democrats believe that anger with Trump is running high and they don’t need to fan the flames. Instead, they ought to demonstrate to voters how they would run government differently on issues that affect people every day.
Bustos said her sense is that “people want us to work on what they go home at night, sit down at their kitchen table, and they talk about.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is running for reelection in a state Trump won, said he hears about the Mueller investigation “a good bit” from constituents back home. But he added: “I hear more about jobs and more about health care.”
Brown also said: “I talk about people’s lives when I’m home and talk about the economy.”
Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), who is running in a district Trump won by 10 points, said: “The people I work for do follow the news about the probe, and do ask me about it on occasion,” but “what they think about every day, and worry about every night, is how they are going to take the best care of their families and provide security for their future.”
On the left, some leaders argue that right-leaning media outlets have skewed coverage of the story in ways that Democrats can’t really counteract. On Wednesday, the left-leaning watchdog organization Media Matters compiled information on all 487 segments that Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who speaks regularly to the president, had run about the Mueller investigation.
Thirty-eight percent of segments pivoted the discussion to debunked accusations that Hillary Clinton’s State Department gave a sweetheart deal to a Russian-Canadian uranium company. Another 29 percent of Hannity’s segments accused Mueller’s team of “conflicts of interest,” a theme the president has echoed repeatedly.
“What you see on Hannity’s show is an alternate reality conspiracy theory, where the investigation is the product of a plot by the deep state and the media to remove Trump from office,” said Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters. “The president is a participant in that ecosystem.”
Congressional Democrats, wary of focusing too much on the Mueller probe, have spent the month rolling out policies on prescription drugs and political corruption, as well as messaging against the Republican-passed tax cut. These launches are part of the “Better Deal” framework, created in large part to combat the impression that the party was focused on Trump at the expense of its own agenda.
Democratic leaders have avoided talk of impeachment. But some liberals have openly raised the idea, mentioning Mueller’s investigation.
Trump has begun telling allies that he thinks Democrats would overplay their hand if they tried to impeach him — and has begun asking confidants and associates how likely they think an impeachment would be.
One senior White House official said the president has mentioned the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” — the conservative argument that Democrats are so against Trump that they view everything he does as a scandal.
“He is not afraid to mention the word,” said one adviser who frequently speaks to him.
John Wagner and Scott Clement contributed to this report.