Greg Nash

An FBI investigation into bank fraud allegations against Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) wife could offer Republicans early ammunition for 2020.

Sanders is one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent politicians, even though he officially remains outside of it. And while he’ll be 79 on Inauguration Day 2021, Sanders hasn’t ruled out another presidential bid in 2020.

{mosads}Republicans have seized on the ongoing investigation, which centers on a loan Jane Sanders secured while running a Vermont college, as a chance to attack a politician who regularly ranks as one of the most popular in the country.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) repeatedly used the investigation against Bernie Sanders this week as new developments brought renewed attention to the case.

The GOP attacks appear to be early signs of the strategy that Republicans have used in the past to soften up potential political threats such as Hillary Clinton, seeking to damage top rivals ahead of expected bids for higher office.

Now they’re looking to use the same tactics against a politician who launched his 2016 presidential bid with populist attacks on the political and business establishments.

“For Sen. Sanders, this is not what voters have in mind when they think of him. Those are the narratives, the ones that are totally counter to what people think of you, that are most damaging,” said Colin Reed, the executive director of the GOP opposition research super PAC America Rising.                 

“This goes at his perceived strength, and in politics on either side of the aisle, perception is reality.”

Sanders and his wife have faced scrutiny for at least a year over a loan that Burlington College received in 2010 while Jane Sanders was the school’s president. But the issue has largely stayed off the front pages.

Last year, the Vermont blog VTDigger reported that Sanders had inflated the amount of donations the college had received for a land deal by $2 million, a figure that helped the college secure a $6.7 million loan for the property. In two cases, a person whose pledge had been used as part of the loan application told the blog that the amount of their pledge had been exaggerated.

That report led Brady Toensing, a Vermont Republican lawyer who chaired President Trump’s campaign in the state, to ask the Justice Department to investigate for alleged fraud. VTDigger uncovered emails in April that proved the existence of an investigation.

But the news gained little traction in the media until last week, when Bernie Sanders biographer Harry Jaffe wrote an article about the case for Politico Magazine that confirmed the couple had hired lawyers.

That revelation earned new attention for the story, with the RNC promoting it on social media and in email blasts to reporters.

“We have a pretty serious investigation, serious allegations and … he’s been on a honeymoon of coverage from this. No one asks them about this,” RNC rapid response director Michael Ahrens said in an interview with The Hill.

He contrasted the lack of attention to the story with the wall-to-wall coverage of former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), who was eventually charged in a federal investigation that began over his office decorations.

  “Aaron Schock spent too much money on couches in his office and everyone in the country knows about it. One of the most prominent figures on the left is under some pretty serious FBI allegations and no one even asked him about it until yesterday outside of one local reporter,” Ahrens said.

Muddying voter opinion of Sanders, who enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating in a HuffPost polling average, could damage the Democratic brand ahead of the 2018 midterms. And attacks on Sanders could hurt the appeal of his populist message, now gaining ground in the Democratic Party’s resurgent left.

The investigation gives Republicans a chance to launch early attacks on a potential 2020 threat to President Trump.

The GOP started building its narrative on Clinton, the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, long before she announced her bid, prosecuting a years-long case that she was too untrustworthy and corrupt to run the country.

By Election Day, Clinton’s favorability was just a few points higher than Trump’s, whose campaign had been plagued by gaffes and scandals. 

Sanders’s political team and top aides did not respond to requests for comment from The Hill.

But the senator himself pushed back on the narrative when confronted about it during a Tuesday prime-time interview on CNN, arguing that the accusations are rooted in politics.

“My wife is about the most honest person I know. When she came to that college, it was failing financially and academically. When she left it, it was in better shape than it had ever been,” Sanders said in response to a question about whether his wife was under FBI investigation.

Sanders went on to point out that Toensing is a Trump supporter, arguing that the Republican “launched” this investigation “just at the moment, coincidentally, no doubt, when I am a candidate for president.”

“It is a sad state of affairs in America not only when we have politicians being destroyed, when there are attacks against public officials. When you go after people’s wives, that’s pretty pathetic,” Sanders added during the interview.

Sanders supporters who spoke with The Hill said that attacks from the GOP prove that Republicans are hell-bent on hurting Sanders because they see him as a political threat.

Nomiki Konst, a progressive journalist who was one of Sanders’s picks for a Democratic unity commission, blasted the GOP for “spreading misinformation and lies while they continue to be the party that is advertising cutting health insurance for 23 million people.”

And Jonathan Tasini, a progressive organizer and former Sanders primary surrogate, added that Republicans want to “throw whatever rubbish they can at him” because, as he sees it, Sanders’s coalition is key to the Democratic effort to take back the House.

But Republicans believe it’s time for someone with Sanders’s stature within the party to receive some scrutiny, especially as Democrats continue to push the thread about the FBI’s investigation into allegations that Trump aides colluded with Russia during the presidential campaign.

And for Reed, a veteran of the opposition-research wars that have helped to define presidential races, the early attempts to shape Sanders’s narrative could help the GOP down the road.

“Trust is a huge issue, especially for a presidential candidate,” Reed said.

“The longer these narratives have to bake in with the electorate, the more effective they are when voters go to vote. We learned that from Secretary Clinton — we were able to get a four-year head-start on the research for her.”

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