By Susan Cornwell and John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats accused congressional Republicans on Wednesday of enabling a growing culture of corruption under U.S. President Donald Trump and planned to use the issue to bolster their push to retake control of Congress in November's elections.
The conviction and guilty plea on Tuesday of two former members of Trump's inner circle put a spotlight on the Democratic argument that Republicans have failed to check the excesses of corruption under Trump - but that voters could do it for them.
"Washington Republicans are failing to hold themselves accountable to the people for the corruption that has infected the party and has infected the nation’s capital," said U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos, co-chair of the messaging arm of the House of Representatives' Democrats.
Some Democrats pounced on the scandals as a way to organise and raise money for November when they are trying to pick up 23 seats in the House and two seats in the Senate to gain majorities in both chambers and blunt Trump's legislative agenda.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez sent an email asking for donations, saying: "The more Democrats we elect this November, the better we will be able to hold this administration accountable."
At the DNC summer meeting in Chicago on Wednesday, Perez told party members the election of Democrats would install "guard rails" against Republican corruption.
Bustos said Democrats were seeking to make corruption a "co-equal" issue with driving down healthcare costs, increasing wages through infrastructure projects and providing new and stable leadership.
The conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on tax and bank fraud charges and the guilty plea of Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen on tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations grew out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of potential Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and whether the Trump campaign conspired with Moscow to influence the outcome.
Russia has denied interfering and Trump has said there was no collusion.
Cohen said Trump told him to arrange hush money for two women who said they had affairs with Trump - and reimbursed him with campaign cash.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Wednesday that Cohen's plea deal did not implicate the president in a crime. Trump, who has denied the affairs, has insisted he paid Cohen out of personal funds and that the payments were not intended to benefit his campaign but to resolve a personal matter.
"Corruption is a big issue when I go around the district," said Democrat Janet Garrett, who is challenging U.S. Representative Jim Jordan, a conservative Ohio Republican and Trump ally who has called for the impeachment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for his oversight of the Mueller probe.
“He’s definitely an enabler of corruption, because he is willing to sacrifice the truth on the altar of self-interest," Garrett said of Jordan, who is fighting his own scandal. He has denied allegations that he knew about sexual harassment of wrestlers at Ohio State University and did nothing about it.
DEMOCRATS WILL 'OVERREACH'
Republican congressional leaders avoided criticizing Trump after the outcome of the Manafort and Cohen cases.
John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said he expected Democrats would overplay their hand and launch a contentious drive to remove Trump from office.
“I have some confidence that our Democratic friends are going to overreach, and this will be all about impeachment," he told reporters in the Capitol.
Republican Senator Mike Rounds, who is not up for re-election this year, told reporters it was tough to get the party's message through to voters over the din of the scandals.
"We're actually getting our work done in the Senate, and I know that’s not getting a lot of attention, but it will at some point," Rounds said.
The Cohen and Manafort news came amid a spiral of corruption charges against Republicans, including an indictment on Tuesday against U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter for allegedly spending campaign money on personal expenses.
Hunter, who is seeking re-election in California, denied the allegations and suggested in a statement on Wednesday that it was politically motivated given the timing of the charges so close to the election.
The Hunter case followed the recent indictment of U.S. Representative Chris Collins, a Republican who was one of Trump's first supporters, on securities fraud charges involving the use of inside information. Collins also denied wrongdoing but dropped out of his race in New York.
Democrats have used the corruption issue successfully before, winning House control in 2006 after financial and sexual scandals involving prominent Republicans. But other issues, such as the unpopularity of Republican President George W. Bush and the Iraq war, were also important that year.
"Democratic candidates already have been running on ethics, public service and independent leadership," said a Democratic strategist who works with candidates in battleground districts. "This just strengthens their case."
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and John Whitesides; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington and Tim Reid in Chicago; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)