WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was so infuriated by fellow primary contender Sen. Lindsey Graham calling him “the world’s biggest jackass” that he gave out the senior South Carolina senator’s phone number in public, making sure to call him an “idiot” as he did so.
Graham was not amused. “I think the beginning of the end has come” for the Trump campaign, he predicted.
Now, in 2019, Trump is the president of the United States, while Graham is his frequent golfing partner — and, more to the point, one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress.
That loyalty was on display on Thursday afternoon, when Graham held a press conference at the U.S. Capitol to denounce the impeachment inquiry that now threatens Trump’s presidency. That inquiry is based on allegations that Trump attempted to pressure authorities in Ukraine to investigate the business affairs of Hunter Biden, whose father, former Vice President Joe Biden, is running for president.
The stated purpose of the press conference was the introduction of a resolution co-sponsored with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and endorsed by more than 40 other Republicans, calling on the House to vote on opening a formal impeachment inquiry, something House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has resisted doing so far.
The resolution criticizes House Democrats for “abandoning more than a century’s worth of precedent and tradition in impeachment proceedings and denying President Trump basic fairness and due process accorded every American.” It echoes House Republicans’ complaints about secrecy and Trump’s due process rights.
Republicans have been infuriated by how Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a former prosecutor who heads the House Intelligence Committee, has handled the inquiry, in particular by what they see as his undue emphasis on secrecy. They have tried to censure Schiff; on Wednesday, Republican House members stormed the secure basement room in the Capitol, where the hearings have been taking place, demanding Schiff make witness testimony public.
Trump praised the stunt. “Thank you to House Republicans for being tough, smart,” he wrote in a Twitter message, “and understanding in detail the greatest Witch Hunt in American History.”
Graham seemed intent on reminding Trump that Republicans in the upper chamber of Congress were behind him too. In the press conference, Graham criticized the impeachment inquiry as procedurally flawed, without bothering to dispute the charges of political interference in foreign affairs that have informed that inquiry.
In his press conference, Graham compared the impeachment inquiry to the Star Chamber, the notorious closed court of medieval England, calling it a “rogue action.” He said the proceedings were a “danger to the future of the presidency,” decrying in particular what he described as efforts to “drive down a president’s poll numbers” through damaging leaks of the kind that have emerged from the impeachment inquiry.
That wouldn’t be the first time leaks were weaponized for polls. During the inquiry into the killing of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy admitted that driving down the approval rating for Hillary Clinton, who’d been secretary of state at the time and would subsequently run for president, had been one of the goals.
“God help future presidents,” Graham said.
Graham is among the Senate’s most skilled operators and knows full well that a Senate resolution has no power over Schiff and House Democrats. Instead, the resolution is intended to counter the growing sense that even the president’s staunchest allies are having a difficult time defending him, as evidence piles up that he attempted to engage in a quid pro quo with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Like other Republicans, he cast impeachment as yet another attempt by the president’s critics to undo the results of the 2016 election. “We believe that a lot of people want to get Trump,” Graham said, “and they don’t give a damn how they get him.”
Graham was involved in the 1998 and 1999 impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. A House member at the time, he spoke spiritedly about “cleansing the office” of the presidency. During Thursday’s press conference, he produced a poster that showed, in his views, how many more rights Clinton had during his impeachment than Trump has had during his.
At one point, Graham did appear to praise Clinton for continuing to focus on the work of the presidency even as he faced potential ouster from office. The comments came in the context of what appeared to be criticism of Trump’s “messaging” on impeachment, which included a confusing press conference last week by chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, which only deepened the sense of crisis within the White House.
Graham later retracted that comment. “I did not mean to leave some with the impression,” he wrote on Twitter, that “the White House needed to hire a new team to handle impeachment.”
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