Chapter Five: The First Impeachment
ON SEPTEMBER 26, 2019, GRAHAM RAN INTO two reporters outside a steakhouse in Washington. That morning, the House Intelligence Committee had released a whistleblower complaint that outlined a new Trump scandal. In a July 25 phone call, Trump had pressed Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Joe Biden, who at that time was the Democratic frontrunner to challenge Trump. In the phone call, Trump had reminded Zelensky that the United States, through military aid, was protecting Ukraine.
In the September 26 conversation, as recounted in The Divider, Graham told the reporters that Trump had just called him to ask how to deal with the scandal. The senator’s advice was to deny the allegations and attack the accusers.
“He’s a lying motherfucker,” Graham told the reporters, referring to Trump. But despite this—and despite whatever Trump had done—Graham predicted that congressional Republicans, out of party loyalty, would stand by him. “He could kill fifty people on our side,” said Graham, “and it wouldn’t matter.”
That was the condition of American democracy after three years of Republican consolidation around Trump. The president, shielded by his party, could no longer be held accountable.
“Enough Is Enough”
THE UKRAINE SCANDAL was a natural sequel to two corrupt episodes Graham had already defended.
In the Russia affair, Trump had gotten away with soliciting foreign interference to aid his campaign against Hillary Clinton. So in his next campaign, he tried a similar maneuver, this time approaching Ukraine in hopes of targeting Biden.
Trump had also succeeded in confiscating funds for his border wall. So now he tried to override Congress again, this time by blocking money instead of spending it. Before Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, the White House suspended military aid that Congress had approved for Ukraine. Trump and his agents used the suspension—along with a prospective White House meeting, which Zelensky wanted and Trump withheld—as leverage to pressure Zelensky to announce an investigation of Biden.
To the president’s critics, his coercion of Ukraine was confirmation of his unfitness for office. They saw his long trail of corruption—collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice, tax evasion, sexual assault, hush money, crooked pardons—as an accumulation of evidence against him.
But his supporters saw it the other way around. To them, the pattern was persecution: Trump had faced one investigation after another not because he had broken laws but because his enemies controlled the investigating entities—the media, the FBI, the House of Representatives—and were determined to take him down.
This was a major reason why the institutions of a free society failed to stop Trump. His accumulating transgressions didn’t just galvanize the opposition. They also galvanized his allies. Every new investigation became, in the eyes of his supporters, another reason to stand with him against the media, the Democrats, and the “Deep State.”
Even allies who recognized Trump’s corruption, as Graham did, lost patience with the investigations. They grew tired of defending the president, but they didn’t blame him. They blamed the investigators. Every day that Graham had to spend talking about Trump’s latest scandal—Russia, Ukraine, whatever—was exasperating. Graham just wanted it to end.
“This constant nagging and criticizing everything he does has driven me into his camp, like a lot of people,” Graham told Sean Hannity in January 2019. “Enough is enough.”
Don’t Even Pretend To Be a Fair Juror
REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS had no interest in hearing about Trump’s latest misconduct. Before the Ukraine investigation could even begin, they dismissed it.
On September 25, the day after Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would open an inquiry to collect evidence and determine whether impeachment was warranted, Graham rejected the idea and denounced the inquiry as illegitimate. “The only reason Democrats are trying to impeach the president,” he scoffed, “is because they don’t believe they can beat him at the ballot box.”
Graham pursued the strategy he had recommended to Trump: deny and attack. “I have zero problems” with the Trump-Zelensky phone call, he declared on September 29, three days after his conversation outside the steakhouse. Instead, Graham targeted the public servants who had exposed Trump’s extortion. “I want to know who told the whistleblower about the phone call,” he demanded.
In 2018, Graham had blamed the Russia investigation on anti-Trump conspirators in the FBI and the Department of Justice. Now he blamed the Ukraine investigation on the “intel community,” especially the CIA. “When you find out who the whistleblower is, I’m confident you’re going to find out it’s somebody from the Deep State,” he predicted on Fox News. “It would blow them out of the water if, in fact, the whistleblower was connected to a Democratic candidate and came from the CIA world that’s been trying to destroy the Trump presidency [since] before he got elected.”
The new evidence against the president could be ignored or discounted, in Graham’s view, because the Ukraine investigation was part of the plot against Trump. It was “just a continuation of an effort to destroy the Trump presidency,” he told reporters on November 1. “It seems to never end.” On November 14, he urged Senate Republicans to tell Democrats: “You had your shot with Mueller. Nothing happened. Let it go.”
Graham called the Ukraine inquiry “a lynching in every sense.” “The whole thing is illegitimate,” he said. He assured Trump’s supporters, “I have the president’s back, because I think this is a setup.” Privately, he indicated that he believed Trump had blocked the aid to pressure Zelensky to open a Biden investigation. But in public, Graham insisted, “There is no evidence at all the president engaged in a quid pro quo.”
Weeks before the House began its hearings, Graham pronounced the impeachment case “dead on arrival in the Senate.” He refused to read transcripts of witness testimony, watch the hearings, or hear witnesses in a Senate trial. “I have made up my mind,” he announced on December 14. “I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror.”
[A printable PDF of this project is available here and a Kindle edition is here.]
Graham still claimed to believe in democracy. But democracy, as he now interpreted it, meant that no president could be removed during his term. To begin with, Graham argued that removal would override the will of the voters who had elected the president to serve a full four years. It would be “destroying a mandate from the people,” he said. In addition, conviction in the Senate could bar Trump from holding office in the future—a prohibition that, according to Graham, would “nullify the upcoming presidential election,” in which Trump was seeking another term.
Only the people, voting every four years, could choose the president, Graham insisted. Any other intervention would “take the voters’ choice away.”
Protected by this semi-autocratic theory of democracy, the president could do as he pleased. During the Russia investigation, Graham had struggled to excuse Trump’s obstruction of the fact-finding process. But in the Ukraine investigation, Graham didn’t bother to invent excuses. He openly encouraged Trump to bar aides from testifying and to withhold documents requested by Congress. “If I were the president, I wouldn’t cooperate with these guys at all,” he said.
Graham also expanded his defense of collusion. He did this to justify Trump’s requests to the Ukrainian government, which—while nominally disguised as appeals to expose corruption—were clearly aimed at helping Trump politically. The requests had come from Trump and his personal agents, not from the Department of Justice. And the requested act was a televised announcement—specifically, it was planned for CNN—not a careful examination of what Biden had or hadn’t done.
For three years, Graham had been sleepwalking toward authoritarianism by following a lawyerly reflex: Every time Trump abused his power, Graham broadened his interpretation of presidential authority to cover the offense. That was what Graham did now. He argued, in effect, that the president was entitled not only to obstruct the House investigation, but also to conspire with and coerce Ukraine.
At a news conference on January 24, 2020, a reporter asked Graham: “What legitimate foreign-policy interest could be served by having the president of Ukraine go on CNN and announce an investigation into one of [Trump’s] political rivals?” Graham replied that Trump had every right to “insist that the Ukrainians cooperate with us on an investigation.”
Two days later, the Times reported that John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, had witnessed—and had documented in a book manuscript—a meeting in which Trump opposed releasing the aid to Ukraine until Zelensky’s government helped Trump and his allies investigate Biden and other Democrats. Several
Republican senators wanted Bolton to testify at the impeachment trial. But Graham worked behind the scenes to make sure he was never heard.
Even if everything Bolton had reported was true, said Graham, it wouldn’t matter. The senator maintained that even if Trump had explicitly told aides to “put a freeze on the aid because I want to look at the Bidens,” that was okay. “The president would have been wrong not to ask the Ukrainians to help,” said Graham.
Graham: The President had every reason to want to look at the Bidens…There’s a mountain of evidence that the Bidens were involved in corruption. The President would have been wrong not to ask the Ukrainians to help given what we know about Hunter Biden and Joe Biden.
On February 4, as Republican senators prepared to formally reject the articles of impeachment, Graham gloated that they had “kicked Schumer’s butt.” “The biggest winner of all, by far, is President Trump,” he crowed. “He comes out of this thing stronger.”
The next day, Trump was acquitted on a party-line vote. Then came the retaliation. On February 7, Trump began to purge officials who had told the truth about his scheme.
By now, Graham was a practiced apologist for the president’s reprisals. In 2017, he had defended Trump’s firing of Comey. In 2018, he had defended Trump’s firing of Sessions. And in January 2020, he had defended Trump’s removal of Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who had been targeted by Trump’s agents in that country as an obstacle to their plot against Biden. When Graham was asked about the ouster of Yovanovitch, he shrugged that Trump “can fire anybody he wants to.”
So on February 7, when the White House expelled Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council staffer who had testified about Trump’s phone call and other elements of the Ukraine scheme, Graham again stood with the president.
The expulsion was flagrantly vengeful: Vindman and his brother—who had also worked for the NSC but, unlike Vindman, hadn’t testified—were marched out of their offices by security guards. But Graham implied that Vindman deserved it. “People in his chain of command have been suspicious of him regarding his political point of view,” the senator insinuated. “When a military officer engages in political bias, they need to be held accountable.”
Graham wasn’t done. He called on the Senate to investigate Trump’s enemies and track down the whistleblower who had revealed the president’s extortion attempt. “We’re not going to let it go,” Graham vowed. “Who is the whistleblower?” he demanded.
Strange New Respect
GRAHAM WAS WORKING HIS WAY through a transformation that became common among Republican politicians during the Trump years. The first stage was selective toleration of the president’s abuses. The second was a gradual loss of will to resist him. The third was descent into a polarized worldview that made it easier to rationalize devotion to him. Graham had embraced that worldview during the Kavanaugh hearings. Now he finished his conversion by retracting his prior heresies.
He began by renouncing the Mueller investigation. In 2018, Graham had acknowledged that Mueller’s inquiry was well founded and responsibly managed. “He’s looking at things unrelated to the dossier,” the senator had reminded Mueller’s conservative critics.
Now Graham rewrote that history. On May 6, 2020, he declared, “The entire Mueller investigation was illegitimate to begin with.” On Twitter, he wrote: “Now I know why Mueller didn’t find anything -- there was nothing there to find. Before it even started, they (FBI/DOJ) knew.” On July 28, he claimed that the FBI’s Russia investigation “was rotten to the core and the Mueller investigation had no lawful predication.”
One by one, Graham went through the roster of Trump’s accomplices, seeking to exonerate them or minimize their crimes. He cast aside his previous acknowledgments of their corruption.
The Flynn case, in particular, illustrated Graham’s transformation. Flynn had been handsomely paid by Russian state media prior to the December 2016 phone calls in which he signaled to Russia’s U.S. ambassador that Trump would relax American sanctions against Moscow. Flynn had also worked secretly as a foreign agent for Turkey.
Graham understood that all of this was suspicious. In February 2017, he had criticized Flynn for undercutting the sanctions. And in May 2017, he had faulted the Trump White House “for not properly vetting Gen. Flynn’s contact with Turkey and Russia.” The senator had praised Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, for reporting Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador to Trump’s White House lawyers.
But by later that year, after Trump was caught trying to squelch the FBI’s investigation of Flynn, Graham shifted his position. In December 2017, he said Flynn’s offer to loosen the sanctions was fine.
And Graham’s shift didn’t stop there. In September 2019, he claimed that the true villains were the U.S. officials who had exposed Flynn’s calls. “It should bother every American that the president-elect’s transition team is being surveilled by the intelligence community,” he fumed. “They’re about to set new policy. What business is it of the outgoing administration to surveil the incoming administration?”
On May 25, 2020, Graham joined Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, for a half-hour conversation streamed by video and sponsored by Trump’s re-election campaign. Graham defended Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador and said the Obama administration “had no business listening” to what was said. He suggested that Obama’s officials had listened in because they were “trying to spy on the Trump campaign”—a bizarre allegation, since Flynn’s calls had taken place after the campaign was over.
Lara Trump denounced the whole investigation. She praised Graham for “leading the charge” to find out how “this Russian hoax started.” She suggested that “the whole thing was actually an attempt to nullify the legitimate results of the 2016 election.”
Graham nodded as she spoke. “Right,” he said.
During their conversation, Graham also tried to whitewash the evidence against Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, who had participated in the Trump Tower meeting. Mueller had found that during Trump’s campaign, Manafort met with and ordered the sharing of campaign documents with an associate who was connected to Russian intelligence. But in the video with Lara Trump, Graham claimed that in Manafort’s case as well as Flynn’s, there wasn’t “any evidence found to suggest that they worked with the Russians in any way during the campaign.”
Why would Graham say such things? What had happened to him?
One answer appeared in the video as he spoke with Lara Trump. “Huge Memorial Day Sale,” said a banner across the bottom of the screen. “Get your I Heart Trump Tee!” said another. “Get the limited edition Boaters For Trump hat!” said a third. “Visit shop.donaldjtrump.com.”
Graham wasn’t just a senator anymore. He was part of Trump’s fundraising operation. And the relationship was mutual. In the months after Republican senators acquitted the president, Graham used his alliance with Trump to solicit donations for his own re-election. He routinely went on Fox News to ask viewers for money—“If half the people listening today would send me a buck”—in the name of fighting for the president. Later, to build up his database of donors and supporters, he would launch an annual “Trump Graham Golf Classic.”
Money wasn’t driving all of Graham’s decisions. But it was part of the web that gradually corrupted him and other Republican politicians. Trump controlled what they needed: endorsements, money, and Republican primary voters.
By the spring and summer of 2020, Trump was in the cleanup stage of the Russia and Ukraine scandals. While exacting vengeance against people who had stood up to him, he was determined to protect those who had remained loyal. That meant blocking the justice system from punishing his accomplices who had been convicted of crimes.
One was Roger Stone, who in 2016 had served as the chief conduit between Trump and WikiLeaks, Russia’s partner in the operation to hack Clinton and help Trump. In November 2019, Stone had been convicted of witness tampering, false statements, and obstruction of the congressional investigation into Russia’s election interference.
Trump intended to pardon Stone or commute his sentence so he would never go to jail. It was a transparently corrupt bargain: Stone had covered for Trump, and now Trump was paying him back. And Graham said it was fine. Trump had “all the legal authority in the world” to pardon Stone, the senator asserted in February 2020. Graham claimed, preposterously, that Trump’s unilateral power to pardon Stone was part of “a brilliant and intricate system of checks and balances.”
In July, when Trump commuted Stone’s sentence, Graham endorsed the decision, arguing that the Mueller investigation was “biased and corrupt.” Trump would later grant all three men—Flynn, Manafort, and Stone—full pardons. On Twitter, Graham applauded the pardon of Flynn, calling him “the victim of a politically motivated investigation and prosecution.”
The pardons were a classic authoritarian move. They exploited a weakness in the Constitution—a virtually unchecked presidential power—to shield Trump’s accomplices from the rule of law. By doing so, they also shielded the president, against whom the accomplices had refused to testify.
But the pardons were backward-looking. They tied up loose ends from Trump’s previous crimes.
The next stage of Trump’s assault on democracy wasn’t going to be about corruption. It was going to be about violence, ruthlessness, and civil war.
Graham: The people doing this hate our country. They hate the way we were founded…They hate capitalism… They hate America…And to the listeners out there, You may not believe you’re in a war, but you are, politically. And you need to take sides, and you need to help this president.
Summer of Rage
IN MAY, POLICE OFFICERS IN MINNEAPOLIS killed a black man, George Floyd, in the course of arresting him for allegedly passing a fake $20 bill. The killing—for which one officer was later convicted of murder—was captured on video and broadcast everywhere. Protests and riots erupted in many cities, and Trump responded by threatening to send in troops. “Liberal Governors and Mayors must get MUCH tougher or the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done,” he tweeted. “And that includes using the unlimited power of our Military.”
Graham endorsed the president’s threat. “I fully support the use of federal forces, if necessary, to restore order,” he wrote. Three weeks later, as some people tore down statues in protest over police violence and other grievances, Graham condemned these troublemakers as domestic enemies. “We’re at war with them, politically. They want to destroy America as we know it,” Graham told Fox News viewers. “To the listeners out there: You may not believe you’re in a war. But you are, politically. And you need to take sides, and you need to help this president.”
In Washington, Trump and Graham wielded power without remorse. In September, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and Republicans—having already installed two Supreme Court justices during Trump’s term—vowed to ram through a third.
Grabbing the third court seat was, like the pardons, constitutionally permitted. But it was an egregious betrayal. In 2016, Graham and his Republican colleagues had refused to let President Obama fill a vacant Supreme Court seat on the grounds that it was an election year. In 2018, Graham had pledged to apply the same rule to Trump. “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term, and the primary process has started, we’ll wait till the next election,” Graham promised at the time.
Now Graham abandoned that promise. “The rules have changed,” he declared. Speaking for his Republican colleagues, he vowed, “None of us are going to blink.”
As Election Day approached, Graham made the rounds on conservative radio and TV, raising money by hawking himself as a Trump diehard and scourge of liberals. “They hate my friggin’ guts,” he boasted on Sean Hannity’s radio show on September 17. “Let’s kick their ass.” A week later, on Mark Levin’s show, he bragged, “The liberals hate me for Kavanaugh. They hate me for Trump. . . . I need people listening to your radio show, if you can afford five or ten bucks, go to LindseyGraham.com.”
Meanwhile, Trump prepared his followers for battle. He claimed that massive election fraud was underway, and he refused to say that he would surrender power if he lost the official vote count. “The Democrats are trying to rig this election, because that’s the only way they’re going to win,” he alleged on September 12. When reporters asked whether he would “accept the results of the election” and commit to a “peaceful transferral of power,” he refused to answer. “There won’t be a transfer,” he said. “There’ll be a continuation.”
On October 7, during the vice presidential debate, moderator Susan Page noted Trump’s ominous statements. She asked Mike Pence: “If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power . . . what would you personally do?”
Graham ridiculed the question. Page’s query “about a peaceful transfer of power was the dumbest question in the history of #VPDebates,” he tweeted. “Only in Washington is this an issue.”
Even after multiple threats by Trump to defy the election results, Graham kept feeding the fires of rage. On October 31, at a rally in Conway, South Carolina, the senator bragged that liberals “hate my guts.” He pledged to stand with Trump, and he celebrated the president as America’s bully. “Donald Trump has got everybody you want to be scared, scared,” Graham told the crowd, naming Mexico and China in particular. He joked that he had warned foreign leaders about Trump: “He’s a little crazy. I’d watch what I do, If I were y’all.”
But it wasn’t Mexico or China that Trump was about to attack. It was the United States.
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[A printable PDF of this project is available here and a Kindle edition is here.]
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