Lindsey Graham launches campaign to defend Donald Trump amid threat of impeachment

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham spent Wednesday spreading words of unequivocal support for Donald Trump as the president embarked on the first 24 hours of life under official threat of impeachment.

Shortly after the White House released the rough transcript of a phone call congressional Democrats say could be grounds for removal from office, the South Carolina Republican told reporters he saw no evidence of misconduct.

“From my point of view, to impeach any president over a phone call like this would be insane,” said Graham of the conversation Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had on July 25.

He made it clear he was prepared to defend Trump on all fronts — in statements to the press and in personal affirmations.

“I talked to (Trump) this morning. I told him, ‘Mr. President, I applaud you for releasing the transcript,’” Graham said. “I told him, ‘Mr. President, the desire to get you is unending. (Democrats) were calling for your impeachment before they even knew what was in the phone call.”

And he suggested former Vice President Joe Biden, not Trump, should be the one to be investigated for improper behavior: “If you don’t see there’s a double standard here when it comes to Trump and everybody else, you’re blind. You’re willfully blind.”

Democrats have seized on the phone call between Trump and Zelensky as a potentially impeachable offense.

In this exchange, Trump, a sitting president, clearly asked a foreign leader to look into the circumstances under which Biden, his political rival for reelection, advocated for the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor.

Biden has maintained that he was, as vice president, targeting the prosecutor for not sufficiently pursuing charges of corruption broadly. Trump and his allies contend Biden might have actually been looking out for the interests of his son, Hunter Biden, who had a stake in one of the companies the prosecutor was investigating.

Democrats also believe there is evidence in the transcript to back up a whistleblower’s allegation that Trump tried to withhold foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for Zelensky’s assistance in investigating the Bidens.

Graham said the transcript offers no indication Trump attempted to extract a quid pro quo, and that it was not inappropriate for Trump to ask Zelensky to look into an “obvious conflict” involving Joe Biden.

“The aura around the phone call was disturbing: did the president of the United States take money that was going to the Ukraine and threaten to withhold it if he did not get help in his reelection? The answer is no,” Graham said. “Did Joe Biden threaten to withhold money if you don’t fire somebody in the Ukraine? Yes.”

Then and now

Graham’s response was not surprising: he has emerged as one of the president’s fiercest defenders and most reliable allies.

His defense of Trump on Wednesday was also in keeping with a pattern of how he recently has backed the president up during similar moments of political crisis and confrontation.

In March, at the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, Graham trained his eyes on the previous Democratic administration, calling for a whole new investigation into the Obama-era justice department’s surveillance of Trump’s associates.

The following month, when Mueller’s 448-page report dropped — and explicitly failed to exonerate Trump — Graham said he saw no evidence of misconduct.

This week, Graham again deflected criticism aimed at Trump toward a Democratic opponent of the president’s, saying an outside counsel should launch an inquiry into whether Biden called for the removal of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor to protect the interests of his son.

And on Wednesday, Graham said there was no evidence that Trump dangled withholding foreign aid in a phone call with Ukraine’s president, forgiving the fact that Trump asked a foreign leader to potentially influence the outcome of a U.S. election.

As he scoffs at Democratic rationales for exploring impeachment of Trump, critics are promoting old footage of Graham defending Republican rationales for exploring impeachment of President Bill Clinton nearly two decades earlier.

“You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role,” said Graham, then a member of the U.S. House who helped lead those impeachment proceedings, in 1999. “Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”

Detractors say Graham is being too conciliatory of Trump at best, and a hypocrite at worst, arguing his words in 1999 could easily apply to the current president today.

Jaime Harrison, Graham’s likely Democratic challenger in 2020, has made Graham’s current posture fodder for fundraising appeals.

“Lindsey Graham will stop at nothing to defend Trump, even if it means turning a blind eye to potentially illegal actions,” Harrison tweeted Wednesday. “My grandparents taught me character counts, and standing up for what’s right, matters.”

Graham has said he has always been consistent on this issue.

“Because they want to get Trump, they’re using my words to get Trump,” Graham said back in May. “This doesn’t bother me one bit.”

And on Wednesday, as a show of his confidence in Trump’s innocence — and in a sign he has no intention of standing down — Graham said he welcomed the whistleblower to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

“If you want to tell the story about what bothers you, come to this committee and I’ll dare everybody in the Senate to stop me,” he said, “because I believe the phone call speaks for itself. The accusations leveled by certain people before they read the phone call has fallen flat on its face.”

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Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.