CHICAGO (AP) — Democrats aren’t ready to embrace the I-word.
A day after separate legal hammers dropped nearly simultaneously on two former members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle, Democrats in Washington and across the country faced a delicate balance as they sought to take political advantage of his growing troubles without alienating moderates and independents turned off by talk of impeachment.
Instead of calling for Trump’s removal, corruption is the new buzzword in Democratic circles. They’re not just pointing to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s conviction on tax evasion and other charges and longtime fixer Michael Cohen’s plea deal implicating the president in an illegal campaign finance scheme. They’ve also got the indictment Tuesday of a second Republican member of Congress.
As the party faithful gathered in Chicago on Wednesday for the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting, Chairman Tom Perez ticked off the growing list of legal troubles for Trump and other Republicans. An “out-of-control” situation, he said, demands that voters “put up guardrails” by returning Democrats to power.
With less than three months before the midterms, that could be a potent political argument. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who could return to the speaker’s chair if Democrats pick up at least 23 new seats in November, was in her home state of California, where she recalled that Democrats won the House in 2006 by hammering Republican corruption in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
“This time, the culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence is so pervasive that it’s in the White House,” Pelosi told the San Francisco audience Wednesday at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Afterward, she said Democrats “can’t be political” in talking about impeachment. Separately, she sent her House colleagues a letter encouraging them to keep emphasizing economic issues, even as she pledged to “hold the president and his administration accountable” by insisting that Congress “seek the truth.”
In Ohio, a presidential battleground that Trump won by nearly 10 percentage points, state Democratic Chairman David Pepper argued Democrats have momentum by running on local issues, even if they can be traced back to Washington.
“Good candidates don’t get sucked into the daily vortex of Washington,” Pepper said. “We’ve spent months telling Ohio voters that these Republicans have voted to take away their health care, protections for pre-existing conditions and now they want to take away Medicaid expansion. … Why deviate from that to talk about something no one in Ohio controls?”
“I’ve got a governor who’s joined at the hip with Donald Trump, so hell yeah, I want us talking about it,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson. He was referring to Henry McMaster, who endorsed Trump in the GOP presidential primary and then accepted the president’s help in a tough gubernatorial runoff this year.
“We win on bread-and-butter issues. That’s what people will vote on,” said Minnesota Democratic Chairman Ken Martin, who counts four competitive House races in his state. Martin noted Hillary Clinton’s decision in 2016 to focus most of her paid advertising on Trump’s negatives. “We see how that worked out?” he said.
Zac Petkanas, a Democratic operative and frequent Trump critic on cable television, offered another reason for Democrats to be cautious: Voters aren’t ready for impeachment.
“Voters are tuning in for the big things” in the investigation, he said. “And there will be more of those. … Democrats should advocate protecting the investigation and finding the truth. But you can’t be seen as prejudging.”
Associated Press writers Juliet Williams in San Francisco and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.