Graham sets a bar for an impeachable offense. Democrats say Trump’s already there

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham reiterated Thursday that grounds for impeachment of Donald Trump would be “if the president had collaborated with a foreign government to get an advantage.”

Though a newly released whistleblower complaint alleges that Trump, in fact, made such attempts, the South Carolina Republican said he was unconvinced.

“The guy or gal doesn’t know crap about what happened,” Graham told reporters of the anonymous whistleblower whose allegations have spurred U.S. House Democrats to launch an official impeachment inquiry into the president.

Graham claimed that in advance of the report’s declassification Thursday morning, he’d been “concerned” about what the memo might contain.

“I thought it was going to be really bad,” he said. “I thought they must have (Trump saying), ‘If you don’t go after this guy, after this problem, you’re not going to get a dime.’ That’s what I thought.”

Instead, Graham said, the report represented a “fairly sophisticated effort to write a narrative rather than blow a whistle” based on second-hand information.

His opinion on the complaint matters. Should the House vote on, and adopt, articles of impeachment against the president, the case would then go to the Senate, which must then conduct a formal impeachment trial and vote on whether to make a conviction.

Graham would play a major role in these proceedings as the chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee who, as a member of the U.S. House in 1999, helped lead the impeachment trial against President Bill Clinton. He is also one of Trump’s most vocal defenders on Capitol Hill.

The current complaint against Trump revolves around an allegation that Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to look into the circumstances under which former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden 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 — a potential 2020 challenger — 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.

On Thursday morning, a whistleblower’s formal complaint was released, told from the perspective of an administration official who said he or she received information from multiple sources that the president was actively soliciting assistance from Zelensky to discredit the Bidens. A rough transcript of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky that was released on Wednesday appears to verify this accusation.

It’s not clear what Graham would need to see in order to believe there was an effort by Trump to use a foreign government for personal political gain.

He said Thursday he wanted to know more about the whistleblower’s identity and how he or she came to know the information he or she then transmitted to Congress, suspecting a partisan agenda was at play.

Graham also said he didn’t buy the whistleblower’s allegations that there were efforts by Trump to withhold aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigating Joe and Hunter Biden. Democrats think the evidence is there, both in the complaint and Trump’s veiled rhetoric recorded in the transcript of the July phone call.

But ultimately, it could be that Graham — like most other Republicans — will never turn on Trump.

The GOP’s defense of the president now is playing out similarly to earlier this year, when White House special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation found no evidence that Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russian officials to influence the 2016 election outcome.

Mueller also explicitly declined to exonerate Trump from claims he obstructed justice in attempts to stymie the special counsel investigation. Trump’s critics have found Mueller’s decision not to make a call about whether Trump committed a crime deeply unsettling.

Graham said Thursday, however, “I didn’t care about the obstruction of justice stuff. What I cared about was, ‘Were you working with the Russians?’”

Nearly 20 years ago, Graham supported impeaching Clinton for obstructing justice to hide an extramarital affair.

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.