U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in March predicted his GOP colleagues would be “enthusiastic” to investigate whether the Obama-era Justice Department tried to influence the 2016 election in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The South Carolina Republican saw his prediction come true on Wednesday, when Attorney General William Barr testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
The hearing was convened as an opportunity for lawmakers to question Barr about his interpretation of White House Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s lengthy report on whether President Donald Trump colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign and sought to obstruct justice to thwart Mueller’s investigation.
But Graham, the Judiciary Committee chairman, also asked Barr whether he thought the Justice Department mishandled the 2016 investigation into Clinton’s private email server, performing a lengthy recitation of occasionally profane anti-Trump text messages between two FBI agents.
He wanted to know whether the former administration unlawfully issued a warrant to conduct surveillance on a Trump campaign associate, influenced by a Democrat-funded dossier filled with salacious details about Trump’s Russia ties.
The majority of Republicans on the committee followed Graham’s lead. By the hearing’s conclusion, they had collectively succeeded in putting Barr on the record confirming he had concerns about the conduct of some Obama administration officials and that he had a team looking into the decision to issue the surveillance warrant.
Asked by McClatchy whether he was gratified by the party unity on this topic, Graham replied “very much so,” adding that committee Republicans did not coordinate their strategy before questioning Barr.
Now, Graham is emboldened to proceed with his plans to launch an aggressive committee investigation into the “how they were so in the tank for Clinton and hated Trump’s guts, and how they manipulated the legal system probably for political reasons.
“People in your business pretty much missed a great story” in 2016, Graham said, referring to news reporters. “You’re gonna get a second chance at it.”
Graham was one of the first prominent Republican lawmakers to unapologetically shift gears after the conclusion of the Mueller investigation. Satisfied the report cleared Trump of misconduct — a conclusion with which Democrats disagree — Graham promised his committee would hold hearings on the handling of the Clinton email investigation and surveillance initiative.
Fellow Republicans did not immediately echo his sentiments, which could have been perceived as dredging up conservative conspiracy theories and the controversial “lock her up” rhetoric from the 2016 campaign.
Democrats even expressed some doubts that Graham had a constituency for his crusade or the wherewithal to follow through, particularly on his pledge to call for Barr to appoint a new special counsel to investigate “all things Clinton.”
“We’ll have to see how serious (Graham) is about that,” U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said at the time. “It’s one thing to say something, it’s another thing to do all the homework necessary to have a hearing. At the moment, this might just be an audience of one.”
Wednesday’s hearing with Barr showed that Graham was not only serious about his intentions, but that he has support to move forward.
Graham made clear he wanted to also advance legislation that would protect U.S. elections from subsequent foreign interference.
“We’re going to try to harden our infrastructure with bipartisan bills to protect this country from another attack,” he told McClatchy.
That isn’t likely to assuage concerns from Democrats that he’s prepared to take the committee down an otherwise partisan path.
“It appears that they are going to work together and coordinate the so-called ‘lock her up’ defense,” U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Republicans on Wednesday. “This is really not supposed to be about the Mueller investigation, the Russian involvement in the election, the Trump campaign and so forth. It is really about Hillary Clinton’s emails.”
But Graham, who is up for re-election next year, doesn’t need Democrats’ approval. He needs the thumbs up from conservatives who are closely watching to make sure he uses his chairmanship to promote the priorities of the right.
Influential conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt gave him high marks on Wednesday morning.
“Bravo (Graham) for setting the stage by reminding everyone watching that the true scandal is conduct of a handful of FBI agents in 2016,” he tweeted.