Democrats say they don’t want to fixate on Russia during next year’s elections.
Robert Mueller’s investigation might not give them a choice.
Monday’s bombshell revelations — highlighted by the indictment of Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort — offer a vivid example of the political bind gripping Democrats, who want to discuss jobs and health care but instead must react to new developments in Special Counsel Mueller’s probe into allegations of collusion between the Republican’s campaign and Russia.
The expectation of fresh breaks in the case, which could last well into 2018, has convinced some leading party operatives that candidates need to simply embrace the Russia story.
“We’re fooling ourselves if we think we have a choice,” said Adam Jentleson, senior strategic adviser to Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal-leaning group.
Jentleson said news of the impending indictment dominated media coverage over the weekend, while the indictments themselves drowned out coverage of other stories Monday. The same dynamic next year threatens to drown out Democrats who refuse to talk about anything else.
“It will be on the evening news all the time,” said Jentleson, a former top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “So even if it’s not the issue you want hand pick you want to run on in 2018, you need to find a way to make it work for you.”
How much Democrats should focus on Russia is the subject of an ongoing debate within the Democratic Party. Foes of the strategy say that pocketbook issues related to the economy are what voters care about most, especially among white working-class voters who generally support Trump but are highly sought-after by Democratic congressional candidates.
But proponents like Jentleson and others argue that ongoing developments in the investigation force the party’s hand. The news, not the candidates themselves, often determines what campaigns are about.
"The only thing that's been consistently in the news since Trump took office is the Russia scandal,” said Shripal Shah, vice president for American Bridge, a Democratic outside group. “That's not going to change, and the more we learn about criminal indictments, guilty pleas, and the FBI's ongoing investigation, the worse things will get for Trump's approval ratings and the GOP as a whole.”
In the spring, American Bridge commissioned a poll that showed 59 percent of people would hold Trump responsible if one of his aides was found guilty of collusion — a result taken before Mueller’s appointment and a number Shah said he hopes has grown in the following months.
The saga of Mueller’s investigation stretches back to the opening months of the president’s administration. Trump was furious when Mueller was named this spring, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The issue, though, had been largely off the congressional agenda for weeks. This summer, senators from both parties proposed legislation that would make it difficult for Trump to fire Mueller. There was little chatter about the bills — until Monday.
The indictments are a "significant and sobering step," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation.
Monday's indictments, he said, show "why it is imperative that Congress take action now to protect the independence of the special counsel, wherever or however high his investigation may lead."
Some Republicans expressed concern that in the short term, the revelations take away momentum from the tax code overhaul the GOP-led Congress and the White House are eagerly pushing after failing to enact their years-long promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.
"It's another distraction from passing the president's agenda," said Ryan Williams, a spokesman for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. "The full focus should be on passing tax reform. At this point, unfortunately, it's another major distraction from advancing his agenda."
The Russia investigations so far have repeatedly frustrated top Republican officials. In the immediate term they have a habit of knocking Congress off-message at a time when the conservative base is furious over what it sees as too few accomplishments for a party that controls Washington.
Several other strategists said that in the weeks and months ahead, the Mueller investigation could have more severe political implications for Trump, especially if evidence of high-up staffers' collusion with Russia on election-related activities emerges.
In the meantime, few saw Monday's developments as a silver bullet for Democrats. Yet.
"If they're going to recycle the playbook from 2016, that didn't work," Williams said. "They harped on Trump and Russia, we maintained our majorities, Trump was elected president. Obviously, things could change as the investigation progresses. But 2016 showed it's not an effective message. It would require a new development — which is possible."
Katie Glueck contributed to this story