GOP Candidates In Legal Trouble Borrow From Trump Playbook: Blame Obama!

TPM Illustration. Photos by Getty Images Michael Graae, Alex Wong, Robyn Beck.
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When a top Republican candidate for governor was confronted over his family company’s illegally underpaying workers earlier this week, he responded with a familiar refrain in modern GOP politics: Thanks, Obama.

Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a top candidate for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in the key swing state, responded to questions about his family company’s failure to pay four workers minimum wage by blaming it on the previous president.

“After three days of Obama regulators crawling around our lower intestine, they came up with a $250 fine, which was later dismissed,” he told local reporters — even though that Department of Labor investigation into his family’s company, which forced them to pay $1,672 in back wages, began a year before Obama was even in office.

Putnam’s strategy of blaming a politicized government and sowing doubts about the integrity of federal officials is just the latest example of a Trump-era GOP candidate with legal problems attacking the former administration. That borrows from the president’s own playbook of attacking the intelligence community, the FBI and anyone else who’s investigating his team for possible wrongdoing as being politically motivated members of the “deep state” loyal to the former president, even if they’re career civil servants or Republicans.

“You look at the corruption at the top of the FBI — it’s a disgrace,” Trump ranted during a recent appearance on Fox & Friends, his latest broadside against the agency. “And our Justice Department — which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t — our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia.”

Some Republicans warn that Trump’s attacks have deepened the conservative base’s distrust of all government that helped him win the presidency in the first place, and given an opening to candidates that in past years never would have stood a chance.

“Law enforcement is now under question, maybe for political reasons, with the same fervor we’ve traditionally held for other government entities, whether it’s the IRS or the Bureau of Land Management or generic government,” Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman, told TPM.

Heye warned that those attacks have signaled to candidates that “it’s not just okay” to attack law enforcement to score political points and avoid dealing with their own legal issues, “it’s beneficial to do so.”

Putnam’s relatively minor offense pales in comparison to some of the other Republicans’ who are currently making bids for federal office. A trio of actual convicted criminals are running serious races for Congress this year, shrugging off their pasts by capitalizing on the GOP base’s distrust of government institutions and the press that has been both fueled by and a strong source of support for Trump himself.

Former coal baron Don Blankenship is running for the right to face Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) this fall even though he’s still on parole after a year in prison for his role in failing to prevent a mine accident that killed 29 workers. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) only avoided jail time for criminal contempt because Trump pardoned him — and now he’s running for the Senate in Arizona. Former Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) is seeking a comeback in his old congressional district after a stint behind bars for tax fraud, challenging Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY) by complaining/bragging “the entire Obama Justice Department [was] weaponized against me.” All three have largely blamed Obama for their past troubles rather than take responsibility for their actions, even when the courts have found them all guilty.

And that’s not to mention other GOP candidates who’ve been in legal trouble turning on both law enforcement officials and the press, and claiming politicized “witch hunts.” That was the strategy Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore took after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct during his Senate campaign, after he’d already secured the Republican nomination. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) has made similar attacks against Republicans in his state as he seeks to fend off calls for his resignation over accusations of sexually and fiscally illegal behavior. Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) lied about body-slamming a reporter on his way to winning office, and while he’s since apologized for his actions he’s also fundraised off claims that the “leftist media” is unfairly out to get him.

Republicans warn that they must stop those candidates in the primaries before they win their nominations and destroy their party’s chances of winning their races. But they admit that’s easier said than done.

“When I chaired the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committtee], what I conveyed to people in states across the country is if you nominate somebody who can only win a primary but cannot win a general election then you have not served the cause of winning a Republican majority, in this case keeping a Republican majority, so it matters,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) told TPM. “But I think it’s very difficult for a Republican Party, an NRSC or an organization to convince voters that that view is better than their view, so voters are going to decide this.”

Moran, like many other GOP senators, showed no interest in discussing the question of what these types of candidates were doing to Republican voters’ trust in the rule of law.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), one of the few Alabama Republicans who refused to back Moore even as he was facing growing legal problems last fall, told TPM, “It’s best for both parties to have good candidates, to have clean candidates — you’re going to be scrutinized, you’re going to be scrubbed and scrubbed again.”

But he argued Trump’s attacks on the legal system and voters’ distrust of institutions were valid, saying that while they were overall trustworthy there were plenty of bad apples.

“Look, you have rogue people in every agency,” he said. “You have that in the IRS, you’ve seen that. You see that in the FBI, you see that in prosecutors, in the courts.”

Grimm, Arpaio and Blankenship are all underdogs in their races. Moore lost after a large chunk of GOP voters abandoned him. Greitens is facing plenty of pressure from his fellow Republicans to step down. Gianforte may have a real race partly because of his past violence. But this phenomena of politicians behaving badly blaming the government and the media — while retaining cachet within their party — shows how Trump’s attacks on law enforcement have bled into the GOP base’s consciousness. It’s left plenty of right-wing media consumers just as skeptical of law enforcement as they long have been of other parts of government — distrust that has been built by years of right-wing faux and overblown scandals, from the IRS to Benghazi to Fast & Furious. And candidates who would have had zero chance of even winning a primary in past years see an opening.

Republicans don’t have a monopoly on candidates blaming conspiracies for their legal troubles — or even on blaming Obama. When the Justice Department indicted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on corruption charges, he and his allies suggested that it was payback for his refusal to support the administration’s positions on Cuba and Iran. Hillary Clinton had plenty of her own complaints about how the DOJ handled its investigation of her use of a private email server, some more valid than others. And during Rep. Jim Traficant’s (D-OH) legal scandal two decades ago, he vowed to expose the FBI for corruption. Others have had success attacking their investigators — Oliver North almost became senator years ago after being a central player in Iran-contra by doing the same.

And this is far from the first time a raft of unelectable GOP candidates has made real noise in primaries. But in the past, their problem was usually ideology, not illegality. In the Trump era, that’s changed.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) admitted he was concerned about that chunk of the party base that wouldn’t even accept legal verdicts as settled fact, but argued “gratefully I think it’s pretty small” in terms of the overall GOP electorate.

But he warned that those candidates becoming the nominee would be deeply damaging.

Usually, it works itself out in the primary,” he said. “But when a Roy Moore gets nominated, we see what happens.”

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