A criminal indictment usually marks the end of the road for a career in politics, but in the Trump era — a time when the Department of Justice and the U.S. court system is viewed by some as infected by politics — that may no longer be the case.
While Congressman Chris Collins, R-N.Y., suspended his reelection campaign following an indictment this month on charges of insider trading, and convicted and pardoned felon Joe Arpaio lost his bid on Tuesday to become the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, California Congressman Duncan Hunter hopes to buck the trend and prove that the accused can still prevail at the polls.
In a blistering 47-page indictment unsealed last week, Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were charged with 60 criminal counts that allege the couple misappropriated $250,000 in campaign contributions for family vacations, meals and shopping sprees.
Hunter, 41, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a possible five-year prison sentence upon conviction, and declared that he isn’t dropping out of the race to retain his seat in California’s 50th district.
“This is modern politics and modern media mixed in with law enforcement that has a political agenda. That’s the new Department of Justice,” Hunter, who initially blamed his wife for the misallocation of funds, told KGTV.
Notably, Hunter went on to liken his situation to the special counsel’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
“The fact is there is a culture operating within our Justice Department that is politically motivated. We are seeing this with President Trump; we are seeing this with my case,” Hunter said in a statement released by his campaign.
Trump himself drew the blueprint for how to attack the Justice Department as well as the news media to discredit any charges or negative reporting on the president. Rarely a day goes by when Trump doesn’t go after both, as was the case Tuesday, when he again attacked Bruce Ohr — a Justice Department lawyer who the president accuses of being involved in the Steele dossier — in a tweet, and also lashed out against media.
Hunter is betting that Trump has fostered enough distrust in both the Justice Department and the media among his supporters in the district, and that his own indictments and the stories written about the charges simply won’t matter.
He may be right. A SurveyUSA poll released Monday found that Hunter still leads in the formerly rock-solid Republican district — which includes parts of San Diego and Riverside counties — over Democratic rival Ammar Campa-Najjar, but by just eight points. Trump won the district by 15 points in 2016, when Hunter sailed to reelection to a fifth term by 27 points.
The Hunter name seems synonymous with the 50th District, where Duncan’s father held the congressional seat for 14 terms before his son succeeded him.
“He does have a chance to win,” Republican strategist Mike DuHaime told Yahoo News in an email. “The district is overwhelmingly Republican and that still matters.”
The problem for Hunter is that the details in his indictment — such as the allegation that he and his wife had a text message conversation about him buying a pair of shorts at a golf pro shop and then passing off the purchase as though he’d bought golf balls for wounded service members — are difficult to explain away.
“I don’t remember that,” Hunter said when confronted last week about the exchange by Fox News host Martha MacCallum. “But I would never do that.”
Hunter, who was the second member of Congress — after Collins — to endorse Trump’s presidential bid, then pivoted and followed a script that seemed written by the president himself, putting the blame for his legal troubles on prosecutors.
“What they’ve done. What I’ve seen that they’ve done, too, is edit some of these text messages and make them look different than they are,” Hunter said. “I can’t pull down text messages from five years ago.”
Hunter’s awkward attempts to explain away the indictment is music to the ears of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which hadn’t previously included his district on its list of target races for the 2018 midterms.
“From flying his pet rabbit across the country to a six-figure bar tab it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Duncan Hunter’s time living large off his campaign donors has ended in an indictment,” DCCC Communications Director Meredith Kelly told Yahoo News in a statement. “Hunter’s misuse of $250,000 worth of campaign funds for personal expenses and the filing of false campaign finance records is emblematic of the corruption and twisted priorities of today’s Republican Party.”
But Hunter’s 29-year-old opponent may have a hard time winning over conservative voters in the district. Campa-Najjar is the grandson of Muhammad Ysuf al-Najjar, one of the architects of the Palestinian attack on Israel’s athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games that left 11 Israelis dead. Al-Najjar was killed during the attack, which happened long before Campa-Najjar was born.
Campa-Najjar, who also draws on his Mexican-American heritage, has disavowed his grandfather’s role in the attacks.
“For the sake of the victims, I hoped this tragedy wouldn’t be politicized. But if these old wounds must be re-opened, then I pray God gives purpose to their unspeakable pain,” he said in a statement to the San Diego Tribune.
While that history may be viewed by voters as little more than a biographical footnote, Campa-Najjar’s liberal politics may prove the bigger obstacle to his winning the seat. Unlike Hunter, Campa-Najjar has given his qualified support for Medicare for All and need-based free college tuition, earning him the backing of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Voters in a deeply conservative district may be put off by the unseemly details laid out in the indictment against Hunter, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to embrace a liberal Democrat, according to DuHaime, the Republican strategist.
“I think many Republicans will give [Hunter] the benefit of the doubt,” he said, “and if he loses in court, hope he will be replaced with a Republican next year.”
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