WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats believe they stand to benefit if President Donald Trump fires Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Justice Department official who oversees the Russia probe, before November’s elections.
But they disagree about how much they should wield it as a weapon in their battle to take back Congress.
Democratic Party sources and strategists say they know that if Trump fires Rosenstein, he will ignite a firestorm of accusations that the president is attempting to shut down the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election he won.
That will likely bolster their argument that Democrats should gain power to serve as a check on the presidency, they say.
“It would be an in-kind contribution to the Democratic Party,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a political action committee that backs Democratic candidates.
This week, Trump is due to hold his first meeting with Rosenstein since a Sept. 21 New York Times report said he considered secretly recording the president as part of a possible effort to remove him from office.
Although Trump has said he wants Rosenstein to stay in the job, axing him would give the White House the chance to put in his place an official who could restrict Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation or perhaps even fire Mueller.
For Democrats, the politics of the Russia probe, however, are complicated.
Some worry about making it a centrepiece of campaigns. Polls show candidates getting traction with voters on kitchen-table issues such as healthcare.
Others believe that if Trump removed Rosenstein he would cross a red line and galvanize left-leaning and independent voters in November, further propelling a “Blue Wave” that they hope sweeps the House of Representatives away from Republicans and improves the Democrats’ current long odds of taking the Senate.
Democrats need to add a net total of two seats in the U.S. Senate to take control from Republicans, while requiring 23 seats in the House to become the majority.
But they also must defend Senate seats in states that Trump won in 2016, rural states such as Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia, where voters will be less receptive to a message built around investigating Trump and protecting Mueller.
Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster involved in several Senate races, said the Russia probe is not on the radar of the voters he surveys. “I haven’t seen it in a single (response) in any survey asking voters what they see as the most important issue facing America,” Wilson said. “Not one.”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week found that Americans favour keeping Rosenstein by a 2-to-1 margin, but 35 percent of respondents said they did not have an opinion, suggesting that he remains largely unknown.
Safe-guarding Mueller has been a cause taken up not so much by Democratic candidates but more by Democratic members of Congress with safe seats, such as Representative Adam Schiff of California.
There are other risks in focusing on Russia. Trump has often framed the probe as a vendetta by Democrats angry about losing the 2016 election, and Democratic candidates risk feeding that narrative by dwelling on the investigation.
For similar reasons, Democrats have largely resisted talking about the possibility of impeaching Trump should they win the House, focusing instead on Republican policies such as the massive tax-cut bill passed last year.
Cecil said that should Rosenstein be fired, he does not anticipate his group would release political ads about it. They would instead stay locked on domestic issues, he added, because the media would do its work for it, providing wall-to-wall coverage.
“Essentially, you are opening up a two-front battle: One you are paying for and one the administration is gifting you,” Cecil said.
The House Majority PAC, which works to elect Democratic House candidates, similarly said a firing would not divert its focus. Jeb Fain, the group’s communications director, argued that “It’s only going to make clearer the need for a check on Trump and Congress, for upholding a rule of law.”
Mueller is probing whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election and colluded with the Trump campaign. Both Moscow and Trump deny those allegations.
Some Democrats maintain that a Rosenstein firing would be a front-burner campaign issue. Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who has funded a campaign to have Trump impeached, is prepared to pump millions into tight Senate races should Trump pull the trigger.
Kevin Mack, the chief strategist for Steyer’s effort, said Democrats have been too timid in challenging Trump’s conduct, nervous about alienating moderate and independent voters.
He said left-wing progressives, particularly millennials and women, could be more motivated to go to the polls if it meant directly taking on Trump.
The party “has to give Democrats a reason to vote,” Mack said.
Should Rosenstein go, another Democratic group, Red to Blue California, said it plans to make it an issue in two key House races in that state involving Republican representatives Dana Rohrabacher, who has been criticized for his close ties with Russia, and Devin Nunes, who has been a sharp critic of the Russia probe.
A coalition of left-wing advocates, national-security groups and government watchdogs have launched a collective effort to organise protests in the event of a Rosenstein firing.
Zac Petkanas, a spokesman for the push, said 900 separate protests nationwide are planned should Trump dump Rosenstein. He said that if Trump makes such a move, it will make the stakes of the Russia investigation, which remains an abstraction for many voters, much more tangible and a potential fuel for Democratic votes in November.
“It won’t be a cable-TV scandal anymore,” Petkanas said. “It will be a real scandal.”
Editing by Jason Szep and Alistair Bell