WASHINGTON -- A liberal outside group is making a new push to defend special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into allegations of collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, an effort officials with the organization say is meant to directly rebut recent criticism of the former FBI director from Republican lawmakers and conservative media.
The group, Bridge Project, says it will mobilize grass-roots support, fact-check GOP criticisms, and pay for social media ads to defend Mueller and his probe, which last month led to money laundering charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates. Former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos also pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators as part of the probe.
"This campaign has basically been a response to what we've seen in the last couple of weeks from Trump allies, where a number of people are making pre-emptive moves to discredit the Mueller investigation," said David Brock, chairman of American Bridge.
Brock, a former Republican operative who famously switched sides in the late 1990s to become an ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, is the founder of Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog group, and the outside group American Bridge.
His groups have made a concerted effort for months to highlight the Russia investigation, committed to pushing an issue they think can be used against Republican lawmakers during next year's midterm elections.
But the newest phase of the campaign is focused more on defending Mueller, whose probe has been derided by Trump as a "witch hunt." Some GOP lawmakers, such as Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, have called for Mueller to resign because of his close relationship with former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing by Trump is also part of the investigation.
To Brock, Republicans are going after Mueller because they are worried the investigation will eventually lead to bipartisan talk of impeachment.
"They're very worried that this could end up there," Brock said. "This could end up with some kind of impeachment proceedings. And that's why they're trying to gin this up now, as I said, trying to get ahead of it."
Impeachment has gained traction with some Democrats, including party mega-donor Tom Steyer, but remains a fringe issue to most party officials. Many leading Democratic officials consider it a divisive issue that their candidates should ignore in favor of pocketbook issues, such as health care or taxes.
Many Democrats also think dwelling on the Russia investigation is a political loser.
"There's been some controversy about whether the Russia issue should be front and center some people have cited polling that suggests it's not the most resonant issue, at least not yet," Brock said.
But Brock said Democratic candidates should not shy away from it because the issue could become even more important as the 2018 midterm elections approach. Campaigns can still talk about health care while mixing in the Russia investigation as another point of criticism -- especially if Mueller dominates the news in the months leading up to the election, he argued.
"I'm just assuming that this investigation gets hotter, and they find more than we've seen already," he said. "That would make the issues resonate more."
(c)2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.