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Democrats Have Avoided Talking About Russia. Here’s Why That’s Changing

5 minute read

For months, strategists have advised Democratic candidates to stay away from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia during the 2016 election.

The thinking was that voters care more about bread-and-butter issues like jobs, terrorism and trade, and arguments about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling would prove a distraction.

In special elections over the past year, Democratic candidates like Jon Ossoff in Georgia and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania barely mentioned the investigations, as part of a broader strategy of avoiding talking about Trump almost entirely.

That consensus seems to be fraying, if not crumbling, however. Democrats have begun talking more about the Trump Administration’s legal troubles, and lawmakers are headed into the Memorial Day recess ready to bring it up.

One reason is that Trump himself is obsessed with the probe, which tends to focus the news cycle on the Russia story anyway. Another reason is that Mueller’s team has started to collect a few scalps, securing five guilty pleas. And yet another reason is that the liberal wing of the party is already enthusiastic about the issue.

So how did Democrats decide to embrace the Russia story? Through lots of very careful polling, focus groups and roundtables with strategists.

Democratic leaders believe that they have figured out a way to discuss the investigations without playing into Trump’s claims that it’s a “witch hunt.” Part of that is by focusing attention on Trump’s response, which they believe is so transparently partisan that voters who have remained on the fence will soon have to choose sides.

Consider a session scheduled for Thursday between the FBI Director Christopher Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and senior Justice Department official Ed O’Callaghan and two House Republicans, Reps. Trey Gowdy and Devin Nunes to review confidential information about the FBI investigation.

No Democrats were invited, despite Trump’s claim that the meeting is part of his goal of “total transparency.”

“This meeting is completely improper,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer wrote, demanding that a broader bipartisan group of eight lawmakers be invited to the meeting.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed Democratic complaints about being shut out. “To my knowledge, the Democrats have not requested that information, so I would refer you back to them on why they would consider themselves randomly invited to see something they’ve never asked to,” Sanders said Tuesday.

For Democrats, talking voters through a complicated story involving FISA warrants, Australian diplomats and informants would be a tough sell, but they think they can convince them that there is something fishy about Trump’s response to the investigation.

On Monday, congressional Democrats rolled out a series of campaign-focused anti-corruption proposals branded “A Better Deal for Our Democracy.” Separately, Democratic strategists with ties to party Leadership are urging candidates to talk about the investigation, but with careful language.

“Americans want to know what this administration is hiding,” said Andrea Purse, a Democratic strategist. “Across the board, it is clear the public wants answers, and they want Trump and his aides to be held accountable for their corruption.”

In talking about this, Democrats argue, it’s important to hone in on specifics over broad claims.

“The better focus is on the cover-up, obstruction of justice, and crimes have been uncovered and will continue to be uncovered, as opposed to trying to wage what I think folks see as a battle of the past,” said Nick Gourevitch of Global Strategy Group. Instead of focusing on the details of 2016’s elections, he said, Democrats would be wise to “put greater emphasis on what’s going on today, what crimes have been uncovered.”

Surveys show many Americans remain unaware of the facts. One, conducted by Global Strategy Group, GBA Strategies and Navigator Research and released Wednesday, shows 41% of respondents said the Mueller probe has found no crimes. Among Republicans, that number is 85%.

In fact, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former campaign aide Rick Gates, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and London lawyer Alex van der Zwaan have all pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI as part of plea deals with Mueller’s team, while Mueller’s team has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies on charges of interfering with the election.

The same survey, however, shows risk for Democrats who talk too much about Russia. The poll found 48% of Republicans do not believe Russia had anything to do with the 2016 elections, and that number is 23% when asked of independent voters. In this, Trump’s strategy of discrediting the investigation is working.

When the Democrats’ survey asked if voters trust Mueller or his team, the FBI or the Department of Justice to handle the investigation, the biggest response was none of the above, with 45%.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com