Former New York congressman Michael Grimm is a felon who has admitted to hiring undocumented workers, hiding $900,000 from tax authorities and making false statements under oath. To hear him tell it, that’s a reason Staten Island Republicans should vote him back into office.
Grimm has uncovered a new reality in the constantly changing world of Republican politics: Criminal convictions, once seen as career-enders, are no longer disqualifying. In the era of President Trump, even time spent in prison can be turned into a positive talking point, demonstrating a candidate’s battle scars in a broader fight against what he perceives as liberal corruption.
In a startling shift from “law-and-order Republicans,” Trump has attacked some branches of law enforcement, especially those pursuing white-collar malfeasance, as his allies and former campaign officials are ensnared in various investigations.
Following his lead, Republican Senate candidates with criminal convictions in West Virginia and Arizona have cast themselves as victims of the Obama administration’s legal overreach. Another former Trump adviser who pleaded guilty to a felony has also become an in-demand surrogate, as Republicans jump at the chance to show their opposition to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Here’s a general rule of thumb: Lawmakers should not be lawbreakers,” said Susan Del Percio, a New York GOP consultant who advised Grimm in 2010 but opposes his candidacy. “I guess it’s a different political norm we are facing today.”
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to a felony count of lying to the FBI, has become an unexpected star on the Republican campaign trail, with a planned appearance May 6 in Montana for Senate candidate Troy Downing. He plans to shoot skeet, dine with donors and hold a rally in the state, where select VIPs will be offered a chance to take their picture with him.
A retired Army general, Flynn faces up to five years in prison after he admitted to making false statements about his contacts with Russian officials and his work for the government of Turkey. “It is time to stand up for our #American Heroes,” Downing wrote when he announced the event, shortly after Trump sent out a tweet suggesting again that the Justice Department had treated Flynn unfairly.
In West Virginia, former coal baron Don Blankenship, who calls himself “Trumpier than Trump,” has advertised heavily about what he says is the injustice of his misdemeanor conviction for conspiring to violate mine safety laws, which sent him to prison for a year. Echoing Trump, Blankenship casts himself as a “political prisoner” who was targeted unfairly by the Obama administration after an explosion at one of his mines killed 29 people.
In Arizona, former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio is campaigning for Senate, with respectable fundraising and poll numbers, after receiving a pardon from Trump for his conviction on a misdemeanor contempt of court charge for his failure to follow a judicial order to curtail his immigration enforcement efforts.
The conviction has done little to dampen the praise he continues to receive from the Republican establishment. At an event Tuesday in Tempe, Ariz., Vice President Pence introduced Arpaio as a “favorite,” calling him “a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law who has spent a lifetime in law enforcement.”
Arpaio has compared his prosecution, which he considers politically motivated, to Republican claims that the Obama administration improperly sought warrants to monitor officials connected to the Trump campaign.
“It’s not something that has affected my campaign,” Arpaio said of his conviction, noting that a recent Magellan Strategies poll found him running second in a three-person race with a 67 percent favorable rating among Republican primary voters.
The campaigns are playing out in the shadow of a public effort by Trump and his allies to discredit the Justice Department’s investigation of the 2016 election. Trump has called it a “total witch hunt” and called Mueller’s investigators “the most biased group of people.”
The message is getting through to Trump supporters. A recent NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll found declining support for Mueller and his investigation among Republicans. In the second week of April, 55 percent of Republicans said the investigation was “not fair,” up from 46 percent in March. The same poll found 56 percent of Republicans thought the FBI was biased against the president.
“The whole world changed when Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch met on the tarmac with former president [Bill] Clinton,” said Michael Caputo, a former adviser to Trump who has been helping the Grimm campaign, referring to an encounter during the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of private emails for work. “The lines between politics and law enforcement have been blurred for a decade, but they are absolutely indistinguishable now.”
In California, Republican candidate Omar Navarro, 29, who is running against Rep. Maxine Waters (D), invited Arpaio and Flynn to fundraisers on his behalf, saying both drew large crowds and enabled him to raise more money.
“When I knock doors, and I knock a lot of different doors and meet a lot of people, and they will see Flynn on my endorsement or they will see Arpaio,” he said. “A lot of people will say that guy was unfairly prosecuted.”
Navarro has legal troubles of his own. He recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge related to placing a tracking device on his wife’s car without her knowledge. He said local prosecutors moved forward with their case even after his wife said she did not object to the device, which he says was intended to protect the car against theft.
“I’m not here to complain about who has done me wrong, or how unfairly I have been treated or how unfair the entire process has been,” Flynn said at the start of his remarks for Navarro, getting sympathetic laughs from the crowd. “You know, it is what it is.”
Grimm says if he is elected, he will use his experience to become a “credible voice” in Congress to denounce what he and Trump call political bias in the Justice Department, particularly in the investigation by Mueller. Early polls in the congressional district that also encompasses a slice of Brooklyn suggest the argument has legs. Grimm recently benefited from the endorsement of former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who will hold a May fundraiser for the campaign in Staten Island.
Grimm’s opponent, incumbent Rep. Daniel Donovan (R-N.Y.), says he expects the primary fight to be tighter than any race he has run.
Donovan, a former federal prosecutor, rejected Grimm’s comparison of his situation to Trump’s.
“The president has never been indicted, the president didn’t perjure himself under oath, the president hasn’t confessed to a federal crime,” Donovan said about Grimm’s argument. “I put my record up against his, quote, record.” (In court documents, Grimm admitted to making false statements under oath in a deposition, not perjury, which has a different burden of proof under the law.)
Grimm, a former FBI agent, does not dispute the facts that led to his guilty plea, which arose from his operation and part-ownership of a Manhattan restaurant.
But he argues on the campaign trail that the decision by the FBI and federal prosecutors to seek his conviction was a political act, meant to remove him from Congress. He said he should have faced a civil penalty instead.
Grimm says only some convicted criminals have a justification to run in a Republican primary.
“You can’t say a guy that was an ax murderer can use this,” he said. “It has to be that you only were criminalized because of the politicization of the Justice Department.”