During Congress’ lame-duck session in 1998, just a week before Christmas, the Republican-led House impeached then-President Bill Clinton. Among the serious allegations against the Democrat were claims that Clinton encouraged and permitted others to lie on his behalf.
As the legal/political process unfolded, GOP members from the House Judiciary Committee became impeachment “managers,” tasked with making their case to the Senate and asking senators to remove the sitting president from office. But as part of those same efforts, those Republicans also did their best to persuade the public that their cause was just.
In fact, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noted on his show last night, a young GOP congressman from South Carolina named Lindsey Graham went on “Meet the Press” in January 1999 to argue that Clinton shouldn’t get away with his alleged misdeeds.
“[Clinton] doesn’t have to say, ‘Go lie for me,’ to be a crime,” Graham said at the time. “You don’t have to say, ‘Let’s obstruct justice’ for it to be a crime. You judge people on their conduct, not magic phrases.”
That sounds like a fairly reasonable posture. The trouble, of course, is that two decades have gone by, Graham is now a senator, and it’s his ally in the White House who’s facing credible allegations of lying, encouraging others to lie, and taking a series of other deliberate steps to undermine a federal investigation into alleged presidential misconduct.
And how, pray tell, did the Republican lawmaker respond to the release of the Mueller report?
Graham said in a statement that his panel is studying the report. The South Carolina Republican says he’s eager to hear Barr’s May 1 testimony to his panel.
“Once again, I applaud Attorney General Barr for his commitment to transparency and keeping the American people informed,” he wrote.
Given Barr’s political antics and deceptions, I’m not sure how the senator’s praise makes sense, but for now, let’s put that aside.
Instead, let’s ask a more pointed question: will 2019 Lindsey Graham apply 1999 Lindsey Graham’s standards?
I don’t want to prejudge how this will unfold in the coming weeks and months. Maybe the current chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will read the Mueller report in good faith, examine the evidence of presidential wrongdoing in a thoughtful and methodical way, and be alarmed by the overwhelming evidence of presidential wrongdoing.
Sure, this seems exceedingly unlikely given the enthusiasm with which Graham has become a Trump cheerleader. And sure, with Graham eager to the point of desperation to impress votes in his red state ahead of his 2020 re-election bid, it’s difficult to fathom him approaching his duties in a detached and independent fashion.
But it’s possible, however unlikely, the senator will prioritize principle over other considerations. I’d recommend keeping expectations low, but I’m also trying not to jump to conclusions.
Indeed, just six days after that “Meet the Press” appearance in 1999, Graham declared during the impeachment trial, “The point I’m trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office.”
Was he serious about this or not? I’m eager to learn how Graham answers the question.