DULUTH – Minnesota's three Republicans in Congress aren't on the same page about the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling that has consumed President Donald Trump, a unpredictable factor for the GOP as it heads toward midterm elections.
"If you listen to the mainstream, the national news, all you ever hear about is Russia, Stormy or some tweet," U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer told a room full of Republicans at their party convention in Duluth last weekend. "But while our media is distracted, the president and you and me are winning!"
U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis bemoaned what he called "the criminalization of politics" that he said is "in large part due to these special counsels and independent counsels on both sides." But U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, speaking last week at a town hall meeting in his district, cautioned against undermining the probe by former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Russian meddling "is not a surprise," Paulsen said. "They are not a friend. We've seen Russian influence in manipulating outcomes in Europe. The threat is as real in 2018 and 2020 as it was in 2016. The administration is not giving it the same attention that I think it deserves."
He added: "The integrity of the election process is critical. It's part of the reason the Mueller investigation should go forward to its conclusion, without interference."
Trump continued his frequent Twitter attacks Monday on the investigation, calling the special counsel's appointment "totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL," maintaining he has the power to pardon himself and writing that he has "done nothing wrong." Late last week, as Minnesota Republicans were gathering in Duluth for their state convention, Trump's lawyers argued he shouldn't have to testify in the investigation.
Three different paths
While Minnesota's three most prominent Republican officeholders diverge over Trump and the Mueller investigation, the Duluth convention showed a state Republican Party firmly embracing Trump and his policies. Candidates praised the president from the stage; state Sen. Karin Housley, the endorsed GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate special election, used her speech in part to criticize her DFL opponent Sen. Tina Smith for obstructing Trump's initiatives.
GOP delegates were largely in Trump's corner.
"It's a witch hunt and Donald is a great president," said Bill Jungbauer, a delegate from Inver Grove Heights. He praised the GOP president's work to lower taxes and said Trump is right to criticize the Justice Department.
"I say most definitely," Jungbauer said. "When will the Democrats stop trashing Trump and start working for America?"
Trump was a frequent target for Minnesota DFLers at their weekend state convention in Rochester. Smith, appointed to the Senate several months ago, laid out in her speech a long series of criticisms of the Trump agenda and ways in which she'd try to block it.
"I am not afraid to stand up to Donald Trump," Smith said.
As Emmer spoke to delegates in Duluth, he signaled that campaign themes that helped Trump win in 2016 would serve Republicans again this year as they look to protect majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, and to win key elections in Minnesota.
"When he was campaigning for president, Donald J. Trump told us … the forgotten men and women of this country are going to win so much we're going to get tired of winning," Emmer said. In an interview, he added: "I think the media has attacked Trump. I don't know what more you want me to say. There seems to be an inordinate focus on certain issues to the exclusion of others. There's a lot of really good things happening in Washington, D.C., and I don't think they get reported on."
Contested suburban seats
While Emmer represents the state's most solidly Republican congressional district — northern Twin Cities suburbs stretching northwest to the St. Cloud area — both Paulsen and Lewis are defending the kind of suburban seats that national Democrats hope to flip.
Lewis echoed calls from fellow congressmen of both parties who want access to the contents of a federal application that allowed the FBI to seek warrants for surveillance of Trump campaign figures, which led to the investigation of Russian meddling.
"I think it's a big leap to suggest [Trump] is denigrating the entire community of law enforcement," Lewis said.
Asked about reports that Donald Trump Jr. and one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort met with a Russian operative before the election, Lewis said, "So what?" Lewis said he didn't find that as concerning as reports that a lawyer representing Hillary Clinton's campaign hired a Washington firm to conduct research that resulted in a dossier of allegations about Trump's connections to Russia.
Republican convention delegates mostly agreed with Emmer's assessment that the Mueller probe is getting too much media coverage, some trying to steer the conversation back to the GOP tax code overhaul and other policy debates.
"Everything that we've seen coming out of Washington, D.C., has shown that there has been absolutely nothing found related to the Trump collusion," said Dale Anderson, a delegate from Eagan. "The only people that have been indicted are people who have been indicted for other things."
Doug Daggett, a delegate from Minneapolis, said he thinks Trump should let the investigation play out — "but he seems to always want to have to comment on something," he said.
While he's worried Mueller is on "a fishing exercise," Daggett said Trump shouldn't be afraid to testify if he has nothing to hide: "If you're not guilty of something — [and] I'm confident that Donald Trump and his administration is not — why not be fully transparent?"