Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at a press conference Monday morning, offered advice to Democrats thinking about impeaching the president: “Learn from our mistakes.”
Graham was referring to the Republican Party’s “mistakes” in pursuing an unpopular impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1999. As a member of the House of Representatives at the time, Graham was one of the authors of those “mistakes.”
“Here’s my advice to the Democratic Party: Pursue what you think is important to the public, but if you keep pursuing after Mueller spoke, then people are going to think you’re just out to get him,” Graham said.
Special counsel Robert Mueller, of course, has not spoken; his report was summarized for Congress by Attorney General William Barr, who made the ultimate decision not to pursue obstruction of justice charges against the president.
As Democrats have speculated about impeaching Donald Trump, Graham’s past statements have come back to haunt him.
During Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, in which the former president was accused of lying to investigators about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Graham was a firebrand.
“You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job [as president] in this constitutional republic if this body determines your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role,” Graham said 20 years ago.
“Impeachment is not about punishment,” he said then. “Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
“Looking back,” said Graham at the press conference, “the public sort of knew what they were getting with Bill Clinton. I think the public sort of knows what they’re getting with Donald Trump.”
His remarks came one day after a golf outing with Trump in Florida, while the nation awaited Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Barr told Congress that Mueller did not find that either “the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government ... despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”
“They were out to get us all,” Graham said about Russian operatives. “They’re trying to divide all of us against each other and done a pretty good job of it.”
Trump and his supporters immediately took a victory lap, touting “complete and total exoneration,” in Barr’s letter.
But that seems to go beyond Barr’s findings. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Barr's letter said. Democrats are pursuing the release of the full report, and several congressional committees have opened investigations into possible obstruction of justice and abuse of power by Trump.
Trump’s lawyer on Monday said he’d fight "fight very aggressively" to keep parts of the report, including responses from Trump, from going public.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she does not plan to pursue impeachment of the president, based on what has been disclosed so far.
Graham warned Democrats that pursuing impeachment would amount to an assertion “that there is no other right answer other than Donald Trump must be removed from office, and you’ll probably suffer the same fate as [Republicans in 1998 for] having gone too far.”
“Donald Trump got scrutiny like nobody else in the history of the presidency since Nixon probably,” said Graham. He added that Trump came out of the investigation stronger.
He vowed to apply that level of scrutiny to “the other side,” calling for an investigation into the basis of Mueller’s probe, including the surveillance warrant against Trump’s former campaign adviser, Carter Page, and the unverified Steele dossier about covert Russian activities to aid Trump in the 2016 election.
“By any reasonable standard, Mr. Mueller thoroughly investigated the Trump campaign,” said Graham. “You cannot say that about the other side of the story. And what I hope Mr. Barr will do is understand: For the country’s sake, appoint somebody outside the current system to look into these allegations, somebody we all trust, and let them do what Mr. Mueller did.”
The senior GOP senator said he planned to speak with Barr on Monday “about what’s next.”
“What’s next I hope will be that [Barr] will come to the committee, release as much as possible of the Mueller report,” said Graham. He said he would make Barr’s testimony “as public as possible.”
When asked if Mueller would be called to testify, Graham said he would leave it to Barr to decide.
“Mr. Mueller was not on a witch hunt,” said Graham. “Mr. Mueller was highly qualified and the right kind of pick to deal with such a difficult issue.”
“Mr. Mueller has been given the chance to do his job,” he added. “Two years, 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents, 2,800 subpoenas, 500 people interviewed, 230 order for comms records, 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence, 25 million or more. That is what happened to the Trump campaign.”
When a reporter questioned Graham about his “public closeness to the president” and whether it gave “the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Graham responded, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Did anybody ever ask during the Clinton impeachment that a Democrat was conflicted in speaking out on the behalf of the president?” he said. “I am an elected political official. I am a Republican. I’m going all over the country to speak to the Republican party. I want Trump to win.”
“There’s politics and there’s the rule of law,” continued Graham. “So to suggest if you’re a Republican and you want Trump to win, somehow you can’t do your job is absurd.”
Graham offered his advice to Trump now that Mueller has concluded his investigation. “If I were you, Mr. President,” he said, “I would focus on what’s next for the country.”
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