It was just a few days ago when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sat down with Axios and set an important standard for Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal. “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing,” the South Carolina senator said.
As it turns out, those comments may have been politically unwise. Bill Taylor’s testimony, supported by extensive and contemporaneous notes, exposed the American president’s direct involvement in an explicit scheme to leverage both military aid and a White House meeting as part of a plan to coerce Ukraine into participating in Trump’s domestic scheme.
The connection between the evidence the GOP senator asked for and the evidence Taylor provided was so precise, the editorial board of the Washington Post practically mocked the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman this morning. The headline on the editorial read, “Here’s the quid pro quo proof, Lindsey Graham.”
It was against this backdrop that Graham appeared on Fox News last night. It was an opportunity for the South Carolinian to make clear whether he was prepared to honor his own stated principles, acknowledge the seriousness of the latest revelations, and perhaps put some distance between himself and his scandal-plagued golfing partner.
Alas, that’s not what Graham said.
“This opening statement by Bill Taylor today, everybody is breathless. Here a question: Uh, why does the president of the Ukraine deny there’s a quid pro quo? What do you know that he doesn’t know? … And the president of the Ukraine, the alleged victim of all this, denies that there was a quid pro quo, he didn’t feel threatened by the president of the United States.”
Graham’s argument, in effect, isn’t that Trump is innocent. Rather, the senator seems to believe that in order for a presidential quid pro quo to be a legitimate scandal, Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskiy has to publicly say he was bothered by Trump’s scheme.
I’m not in a position to say whether Graham actually believes what he said – I’m going to hope he realizes how ridiculous the argument is – but whether the senator was sincere or not, no fair-minded person should take his pitch seriously.
Consider the context: Ukraine is a vulnerable ally, struggling against Russian aggression. Zelenskiy is heavily dependent on the United States; he has every reason to go out of his way to stay in the White House’s good graces; and he has no incentive to infuriate the sitting American president.
Zelensky’s team is also no doubt aware of the fact that Trump’s fate will be decided by a Senate led by Trump’s political party, which is unlikely to remove him from office, no matter how serious the evidence against him.
It’s against this backdrop that Lindsey Graham claims he has no idea why the Ukrainian president isn’t actively participating in the impeachment proceedings against Donald J. Trump.
Last week, after Graham balked at Trump’s dangerous policy in Syria, the president made no effort to hide his annoyance with the senator’s willingness to question his decision. Eager to assert dominance, Trump reminded his party of the pecking order, declaring, “I am the boss.”
I wondered whether a comment like that might inspire Graham to show a little more independence, perhaps even reminding Trump that he’s not a presidential employee.
Evidently, that backbone does not exist.