Democrats are pouncing on President Trump’s performance at Monday’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, eyeing a new opportunity to turn his embrace of Russia into a winning campaign issue in November’s midterm elections.
Even lawmakers and strategists who have been skeptical that the Russia investigations would motivate swing voters said Tuesday that the president’s decision to publicly question the conclusions of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies while standing at Putin’s side represented a watershed political moment.
“He is literally, bit by bit, destroying our relationship with our closest allies and embracing Vladimir Putin, and I just think it is a step way too far,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who helped craft a Democratic campaign agenda squarely focused on raising wages, improving health care and preserving retirement benefits.
Citing polls and focus groups that have put Trump and Russia far down the list of voter priorities, Democratic strategists have counseled candidates and party leaders for months to discuss “kitchen table” issues. Now, after a remarkable 46-minute news conference on foreign soil where Trump stood side by side with a former KGB agent to praise his “strong” denials of election interference and criticize the FBI, those strategists believe the ground may have shifted.
Still, there were signs of pitfalls for Democrats on the campaign trail, as candidates strained to tailor their responses to the summit to the political realities of their districts. One Senate candidate, Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, said Trump’s remarks merited impeachment, while other candidates issued statements that didn’t mention Trump at all.
But coming on the heels of the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officials last week alleging a detailed campaign to interfere on Trump’s behalf, many Democrats believe the summit may have helped clarify months of opaque investigations into the president’s Russia ties — probes that Trump and his allies have spent months attacking as a biased “witch hunt.”
“It got simple real fast,” said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “I’ve talked to a lot of Democrats that are running in purple and red states and districts who have said that Russia rarely comes up back home, and I think that has now changed.”
Even as Trump tried on Tuesday to walk back some of his comments at the summit, claiming he did not mean to question U.S. intelligence sources, Democratic leaders in both congressional chambers moved to take political advantage of his remarks at the summit.
Senate Democratic leaders started laying the groundwork for a campaign to convince voters that they would stand up to Trump more forcefully than Republicans if he betrays Americans’ interests.
“If we’re in the majority, we’ll probably be more effective and you’d see a lot stronger things protecting American security than you will with this majority, which seems so afraid of President Trump,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
In a floor speech, Schumer put Trump’s dealings with a Russian premier in historical terms: “Can you imagine if President Kennedy believed Khrushchev when he said that there were no missiles in Cuba? Can you imagine if President Reagan believed Gorbachev without verifying that the Soviet Union would reduce its missile stockpile? We’d be living in a much different world than we are today.”
In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on Republican leaders to join with Democrats in passing a resolution backing intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russians interfered in the 2016 elections, as well as bills protecting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating the Russian meddling, and beefing up funding for election security.
“It’s about trust, and I think that the president has made a clear case that he is not to be trusted when it comes to the interest of the American people,” she said.
Throughout the day, Democrats in both chambers talked up the need to put a “check” on Trump — an argument they believe will lead to success in the ruby-red states that are likely to decide control of the Senate and the purple suburban districts where the House majority will be decided.
“This president needs at least one body in the U.S. Congress to hold him accountable,” Bustos said. “Right now, obviously . . . it’s all in one party’s hands.”
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, citing a recent focus group he conducted for a leading Democratic super PAC, said Trump voters are open to voting for Democrats who “will be independent and think for themselves.”
“The backdrop for every single election in America this year is whether voters want people who will support Donald Trump or be an independent check and balance on Donald Trump,” he said, arguing that Democrats are on safe ground to go after Trump over his comments even in states he won by wide margins.
More than seven in 10 voters said they would like to see Congress be a check on Trump, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this month. About half of Republicans and the vast majority of Democrats took that view.
Joe Trippi, a longtime strategist who helped steer Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) to an extraordinary victory last December, said the near universal backlash to Trump’s comments marked a further erosion of faith in the president from Republican voters who have already been souring on him.
In the Alabama race, Trippi said he started to sense a growing fatigue with Trump among younger, female and educated Republicans who had become weary of constantly impending crises.
“They couldn’t stand the feeling of always being on the edge or the country always being on the edge,” he said. Now, “the water is getting strong up against the wall. I’m not saying this broke the wall, but it sprung a leak.”
While numerous Republicans said they were dismayed by Trump’s handling of Putin, they betrayed little concern that it would have political ramifications in the midterms.
“I continue to be very confident about November,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I think a strong economy, Supreme Court justices — that’s what will be the conversation in November.”
Thus far, Democrats have run a campaign rooted heavily in health care, jobs and other kitchen-table issues, and Pelosi said Tuesday that the “Better Deal” agenda Democrats unveiled last year would remain the centerpiece of the party’s 2018 campaign. But even lawmakers who have long criticized top party leaders for not pursuing a more coherent economic message, said Trump’s handling of Russia would have to figure in to the party’s efforts.
“To completely focus on it, I think, moves you away from what [voters are] thinking about, and that’s their pension, their wages, their retirement, their health care — bread and butter,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). But, he said, “it’s gotten to the point where he’s being dangerous now.”
Some Democrats have gone farther. Several on Tuesday used the term “treason,” seizing on a description tweeted by former CIA Director John Brennan, and O’Rourke (D-Texas) — making a long-shot Senate bid — told the Dallas Morning News that Trump’s remarks merited impeachment. His opponent, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, immediately accused him of “partisan extremism.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, O’Rourke said he would not campaign on impeaching Trump but said the president’s behavior in Helsinki could not be ignored.
“Our intelligence community says that we’re not out of the woods on the 2018 election, and he’s sided with the other side on foreign soil — how [fouled] up is that?” he said. “There needs to be an accountability and a reckoning.”
Others are being much more careful: Democratic candidate Dan McCready, running for a Republican-held seat in North Carolina, issued a statement Thursday that backed intelligence agencies and highlighted his own military service without directly criticizing Trump: “I trusted American intelligence to keep my Marines safe in Iraq, and I trust American intelligence still today.”