Henry Cuellar’s team is doing damage control. Will it work?


Henry Cuellar’s political life is in jeopardy. His legal status may also be in jeopardy.

The first concern, however, is the most urgent one. In 3½ weeks, early voting begins for a Democratic primary runoff in which the Laredo-based congressman (whose district takes in part of San Antonio) is defending the seat he has held for nine terms.

Cuellar, 66, faces a tough challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a progressive immigration attorney from Laredo, who he outpolled by only 2 percentage points in a three-candidate primary last month.

Cuellar might have escaped without a runoff if not for an FBI search of his home and campaign office in January.

The resulting cloud of suspicion damaged Cuellar’s primary campaign and threatens to undermine his runoff prospects.

That’s what we need to keep in mind when we consider a statement Joshua Berman, Cuellar’s attorney, made to Fox News last week.

“Over the last several weeks, the Justice Department, in a conversation I had with the prosecutor, let me know that Congressman Cuellar is not a target of this investigation,” Berman said.

The wording of the statement was odd, with its suggestion that Berman and the prosecutor held a single conversation over a period of weeks.

Its intent, however, was unmistakable: to defuse the drama around the FBI raid and provide voters with a sense of reassurance that there’s nothing to see here.

Of course, an announcement from an attorney on Cuellar’s payroll is not the same thing as a public exoneration by the Justice Department. It’s important to remember that the prosecutor Berman referred to has made no statements to back up Berman’s declaration.

I had some questions for Berman about his supposed interactions with the prosecutor, but the D.C. attorney did not respond to my interview request.

It could very well be that Cuellar is in the clear.

Keep in mind, however, that Team Cuellar’s top priority right now is to survive an election. The legal ramifications of the FBI raid might not be known for months or years. If the congressman has to deal with anything on that front, he can grapple with it later.

But the runoff — and the fate of Cuellar’s political career — is on the line right now. Whether or not Cuellar actually got a clean bill of health from the feds, it’s in his best political interests to make District 28 voters think so before they go to the polls.

There are some context clues that raise doubts about the narrative scripted by the congressman’s team.

For one thing, it’s very rare for the Justice Department to initiate this kind of raid against a political candidate in the heat of an election campaign.

Although some Cuellar advocates interpret the unusual timing of the search as evidence that the Justice Department is performing a political hit on him, that argument makes no sense.

Cuellar is an incumbent Democrat in a district that Republicans have at least a shot at flipping in November. This is shaping up to be a tough election cycle for Democrats, and many pundits believe they’ll lose control of the U.S. House to the GOP.

All the more reason that District 28 is precious cargo for Democrats at the moment. Most political observers would tell you that the GOP’s chances of swinging this socially conservative district are better against Cisneros, a young acolyte of democratic socialist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It’s true that Cuellar is more conservative than most of his fellow House Democrats, particularly on abortion and immigration. But he also has had the consistent backing of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the party establishment.

If anything, the timing of the raid suggests a concern that waiting could have resulted in the destruction of crucial evidence. This kind of politically sensitive move almost certainly would have required the approval of someone at the top level of the Justice Department.

Investigators were searching for records connected to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, including three companies with ties to Cuellar’s wife, Imelda, according to subpoenas obtained by ABC News.

Cuellar’s own connections to Azerbaijan are undeniable.

He co-chairs the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus, has traveled to Azerbaijan and has facilitated trips to the oil-rich country by students at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

Cuellar also has ties to a Houston-based businessman, Kemal Oksuz, who was convicted of lying to Congress about Azerbaijan’s role in funding a 2013 congressional trip to the country.

These facts don’t prove that he’s guilty of anything. But reassuring statements from his attorney don’t prove anything either.

[email protected] | Twitter: @gilgamesh470


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