The Devolution of Lindsey Graham

The new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee won’t act on legislation meant to protect the Mueller investigation. Even his own bill.
February 14, 2019
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Lindsey Graham. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham has no plans to move bills designed to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his final report from interference by the administration, per a Politico report. My, how things have changed.

It was just last year, when Chuck Grassley was chairman, that the committee passed the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, co-sponsored by Graham and North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis. The bill, which was also sponsored by Democrats Chris Coons and Cory Booker and went by the appellation “Graham-Tillis,” would have narrowed the reasons a special counsel could be fired, instituted an appeal process, and ensured that all materials and documents for the investigation were retained if the special counsel were dismissed.

The vote was purely symbolic, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already made clear that he didn’t intend to bring the bill to the floor. But it was a vote.

Graham even re-introduced the bill in the first week of the new Congress, not long after House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler introduced a companion bill in the House.

Now, Graham’s about-face all but ensures the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act will never become law.

Last month, Grassley, still a member of the Judiciary Committee after giving up the chairmanship, partnered with Democrat Richard Blumenthal to introduce the Special Counsel Transparency Act, which would require the final report Mueller will give to the attorney general at the conclusion of the investigation is also given to Congress before administration officials could alter or revise it.

“I want to know what [the report] says, but I also want to know what we got for 25 or 35 million dollars and so I would still hope that it would pass because we could have special counsels five years from now 10 years from now,” Grassley told Politico.

Graham reportedly doesn’t plan to advance Grassley’s bill, either.

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Graham used to hold different opinions on propriety in government. He once denounced the president for his abusive relationship with the truth: “Every time there was a crossroads, he put his personal and legal interests ahead of the nation. He is the chief law-enforcement officer of the land. He encouraged people to lie for him.”

Of course, that was in 1999. Bill Clinton was president, and  Graham was the trial manager for his impeachment. The argument could apply just as well today: Trump allegedly directed his subordinate, Michael Cohen, to perjure himself before Congress about matters pertaining to Trump Tower Moscow.

In 1999: “I think there’s a compelling case that he has in fact engaged in conduct — that [it] would be better for him to leave office that to stay in office.”

This week: “I think we’re OK right now.”

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Graham’s about-face on the special counsel is the culmination of a long and somewhat unexpected journey. There were many Republicans who opposed Trump early on before falling in line as he became the nominee and then president. But Graham’s long-held independent streak suggested he might have held out longer.

During the 2016 campaign, Graham was characteristically uninhibited with his thoughts about then-candidate Trump.

In a since-deleted tweet, Graham had more criticism for Trump, then the presumptive GOP presidential nominee: “I can only imagine how our allies in NATO, particularly the Balkan states, must feel after reading these comments from Mr. Trump.”

During the campaign, Trump published Graham’s private cell phone number. In response, Graham made a video:

Graham refused to endorse Trump once he officially became the Republican nominee.

The South Carolinian had a stable base of support from which to do rhetorical battle with Trump. In his four elections to the House of Representatives, he never received less than 60 percent of the vote. In his three Senate races, he’s received at least 54 percent of the vote each time.

His electoral success can be credited to shrewd political maneuvering more than pandering, as he’s frequently dissented from party orthodoxy on immigration, waterboarding, and climate change. He was highly critical of the Tea Party movement, calling for a more inclusive and heterogeneous Republican Party.

Now, as the Republican Party coalition grows ever ever older, whiter, and male, Graham has abandoned his fierce independence. At his moment of peak influence, in his first term as chairman of a full committee, Graham has decided to table his namesake bill.

In the nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Graham delivered a tirade at Judiciary Committee Democrats rather than using his time to question Brett Kavanaugh..

Some suspected that Graham was using his moment to angle for a Cabinet appointment – either secretary of defense or attorney general. Since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have left the Trump administration. Sessions’s replacement, Bill Barr, is expected to be confirmed within a week, while Patrick Shanahan is in charge of the Defense Department as acting secretary pending the nomination of a permanent replacement.

Graham may still be angling for the job. He’s nothing if not a shrewd politician, and he might be the only person who can endear himself to the president while quashing his isolationist instincts.

Otherwise, it’s doubtful the Lindsey Graham of 1999 would look favorably on the Lindsey Graham of 2019.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.