Which Lindsey Graham will run the judiciary panel? A high stakes hearing to offer clues

When Lindsey Graham takes the gavel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will he be a thoughtful collaborator or a hyper-partisan crusader?

Will he be a team player or a legislator intent on setting his own agenda?

The South Carolina Republican has shown he can be any or all of these personas just in the last few weeks. Tuesday, newly-designated Chairman Graham will preside over one of Washington’s — and the nation’s — most eagerly awaited Senate hearings, a grilling of William Barr, the nominee to be President Donald Trump’s new attorney general.

“I can’t figure Lindsey out,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, with a laugh. “But I think people have probably said that about Lindsey for decades. I think he prides himself on keeping his friends and adversaries guessing.”

At the confirmation hearing Tuesday, Barr is expected to get questions about his commitment to allowing White House special counsel Robert Mueller to complete the investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia. Mueller’s probe likely includes an inquiry into the circumstances surround Trump’s firing of James Comey as FBI Director.

Mueller works for the attorney general.

Democrats will be working hard to poke holes in Barr’s efforts at impartiality. They will point to an opinion piece Barr wrote in the Washington Post days after Comey was fired, stating Trump had the authority to fire political appointees. Democrats are also concerned that Barr, a year later, reiterated his support for Trump’s Comey actions in a memo to outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Graham, who has plans to move legislation through his committee soon that would protect Mueller from being fired by Trump, said Barr supports Mueller’s investigation and would “err on the side of transparency” in sharing the findings of the special counsel’s final report with Congress and the public. Graham also said Barr was entitled to write a memo, and express opinions, as a private citizen.

“We’re gonna make sure our Democratic friends have information relevant for or against Mr. Barr,” Graham said. “I expect him to be challenged, and it would be appropriate to challenge him about this memo and other things. I just hope it’s done respectfully.”

Whether Graham thinks Democrats are being “respectful” of Barr could be set the tone for the entire hearing, which is expected to last two days.

Last fall, Graham unleashed a side of himself few of his colleagues had seen before during the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the Supreme Court. Convinced Kavanaugh was being wrongly accused of sexual assault, Graham delivered a scathing critique of Democrats’ attempts to “ruin a man’s life.”

The speech went viral, with Graham catapulted to conservative stardom. Before the midterm elections, Graham went on a two-week tour through the country to boost Republican candidates in competitive races, including those going up against Democratic incumbents — something the lawmaker had never done in his 25-year Congressional career.

With many committee members from the last Congress set to return this year, hard feelings and a lack of trust could linger, especially involving judicial nominees.

Like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, Graham believes part of the Republican legacy in the Senate majority should be confirming a record number of conservative judges to lifetime appointments on the federal bench.

Graham has signaled he’s prepared to move the judges through the confirmation process no matter what, even if it means alienating Democrats. Republicans control 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director with the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said there was nothing Graham could do to ease tensions with Democrats on judicial nominees, given Democrats “have illustrated it doesn’t matter who Trump nominates.”

Graham is also furious with Democrats for allegedly leaking incriminating information about judicial nominees in the press late in the process to derail confirmations, saying, “I’m not gonna reward people who dump this stuff at the end.”

Judiciary Committee Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina predicted that if the committee considers another Supreme Court justice nominee under Graham’s chairmanship and Democrats continue their “abhorrent behaviors,” Graham “probably won’t be as patient” as his predecessor, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

In addition to judges, Graham could continue to position himself on other issues as an unapologetic partisan, resolved to promote a committee agenda that the party base badly wants.

Graham has promised to examine how the FBI obtained a warrant to eavesdrop on Carter Page, an adviser to then-candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Some speculate that the justification for the warrant was based on unsubstantiated claims about Trump contained in a dossier financed in part by national Democrats supporting presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“We should have had a special counsel appointed a long time ago to look at all things Clinton,” Graham told Fox News in December.

Ultimately, his penchant for making news — and being in the spotlight — could be what dictates the issues Graham takes on and how he runs the committee. The Barr confirmation hearings will be widely watched, with Graham, who is known for his one-liners and zingers, center stage.

Graham “may have to have his own television network,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri. “He’s smart and he’s quick and he’s funny, but he also feels strongly about what he feels strongly about.”

Asked whether there were was any downside to showmanship, Blunt replied, “there are always pitfalls in personality.”

But Graham, who has a history of crossing the aisle to work with Democrats in the interest of getting things done, has also pledged to use his chairmanship to look at issues that have broad support, such as investigating privacy practices of social media organizations such as Facebook.

He will almost certainly hold hearings on immigration overhaul measures and attempt to move legislation to protect certain undocumented immigrants at risk from deportation. Graham has tried again and again to advance comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation, including a pathway to citizenship.

“I hope the Lindsey Graham that’s gonna be the chair … is the Lindsey Graham I worked with on comprehensive immigration reform,” said Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, a committee member.

Of course, wading into the immigration debate could put Graham, who is up for re-election in 2020, at odds with conservative voters in his state who took to calling their senator “Lindsey Grahmnesty” for his work on the issue.

Recently asked what he thought of the potential for a Graham judiciary chairmanship, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who has adamantly opposed Graham’s past efforts to overhaul immigration laws, gave a long pause.

“No comment,” he said finally.

Brian Murphy of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.