- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan D. Hunter were the first two lawmakers in Washington to back then-candidate Donald Trump in 2015.

Now both of them face federal criminal charges — one accused of insider trading and the other of siphoning campaign money to himself and his wife — in the latest self-inflicted wounds for a GOP struggling to hang onto Congress in this year’s elections.

Democrats are eyeing both seats, one in New York and the other in California, as pickups, while Republicans are trying to fend off complaints that the legal taint surrounding Mr. Trump has infected Capitol Hill as well.

“It’s no coincidence that President Trump’s first and second Congressional supporters were indicted this month,” said Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “The Republican culture of corruption reaches to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Both parties, meanwhile, also are keeping close tabs on a race in Virginia, where a special prosecutor was appointed this month to investigate claims that aides to Republican Rep. Scott W. Taylor committed voter fraud — generating more unwanted headlines for the GOP.

Election analysts said the troubles could be used against Republicans.

“It does give Democrats a handy talking point to note as they try to make a ‘culture of corruption’ argument against Trump and Republicans, akin to [the GOP’s] messaging in 2016,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Mr. Trump ran on a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, complaining that career politicians, especially Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, were “crooked.”

Yet it’s his allies who now are being accused of swamp-like behavior.

Mr. Collins was accused of using his position on the board of a pharmaceutical company to alert his son to impending bad news about a drug trial, allowing his son and others to sell hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares. Mr. Collins has already said he won’t run for re-election this year.

But Mr. Hunter signaled Wednesday he isn’t going anywhere, saying the charges against him are politically motivated and blaming “Democrats” at the Justice Department for an attempted railroading.

“We are excited about going to trial with this, frankly,” Mr. Hunter told KGTV, the ABC affiliate in San Diego. “This is par for the course. This is modern politics and modern media, mixed in with law enforcement that has a political agenda.”

A federal grand jury indicated the Hunters on Tuesday on charges of illegally using $250,000 in campaign funds “to purchase goods and services for their personal use and enjoyment” — including tens of thousands of dollars spent on family getaways to Italy, Hawaii and Las Vegas.

The indictment came the same day that Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s one-time campaign chairman, was convicted of tax fraud and bank fraud, and Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer, pleaded guilty to, among other things, violating campaign-finance laws.

It appears the GOP will be able to replace Mr. Collins on the November ballot, but that’s not the case in California, where Mr. Hunter is running against Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar.

“These are seats that should be safe Republican holds, even in a bad environment, that all of a sudden no longer are,” said Mr. Kondik. “Republicans still should be able to hold both, but the uncertainty surrounding these seats gives the GOP additional exposure on a national congressional map where they already are playing a lot of defense.”

There have already been several special elections caused by Republican lawmakers’ scandal-caused resignations.

In Arizona, former Rep. Trent Franks stepped down after being accused of offering his aides money to carry surrogacy pregnancies. Former Rep. Blake Farenthold also called it quits in Texas following the revelation that he used $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a harassment lawsuit against him.

Republicans held those seats — but they ceded a Pennsylvania seat given up by Rep. Patrick Murphy, who resigned after accusations he pressured a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to get an abortion. Democrat Conor Lamb overcame a flood of outside money from GOP-aligned groups to flip the seat.

Mr. Trump’s backers say if Democrats were serious about cleaning up corruption they would look within their own ranks.

“It is obvious they have one set of laws for themselves and another for anyone they don’t like,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. “We see through their hypocrisy, lies, illegal behavior and coverups.”

Democrats have seen their own scandal-related resignations.

Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan stepped down amid #MeToo-fueled accusations of sexual harassment.

Former Rep. Keith Ellison, meanwhile, is facing intense scrutiny amid allegations of domestic abuse leveled against him by an ex-girlfriend.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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