Senior GOP senator Lindsay Graham once argued that impeaching a president and removing him from office didn’t require a criminal conviction. As pressure mounts against President Donald Trump, those words are being resurrected by those calling for Republican lawmakers to consider proceedings against him.
In archival video shared last night by MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, Graham, then a House of Representatives member, argued that a president can be removed “if this body [Congress] determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role . . . because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
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Graham was speaking in January 1999, in the midst of historic impeachment proceedings against then-President Bill Clinton. Clinton was accused of making false statements to investigators about his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, in the course of a sexual harassment investigation in the case of Paula Jones. In December 1998, Clinton was successfully impeached in the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, beginning a trial in the Senate. Weeks after Graham’s statements, the Senate rejected the charges against Clinton and voted against removing him from office.
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Graham’s statements on impeachment have resurfaced just as a pair of convictions link Trump to wrongdoing more closely and clearly than ever before. On Tuesday, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts related to tax evasion. Almost simultaneously, Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations. Cohen claimed he acted on the president’s orders when violating campaign laws.
Those outcomes do not directly tie to the long-running speculation that Trump or his campaign conspired with the Russian government during the election. But Manafort’s crimes resulted in part from his work for pro-Russian politicians in the Ukraine, and Cohen’s lawyer has said Cohen has information related to the hacking theft of campaign-related emails. The Justice Department has charged 12 Russian intelligence officers in connection with the hacks, which significantly influenced the 2016 election.
Obstruction of justice, one of the charges in the Clinton impeachment, would likely also be central to any proceeding against Trump. Opponents accuse him of interfering with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign, including by firing FBI director James Comey. There is also mounting evidence that Trump and his allies have concealed or downplayed at least some contacts with Russian operatives, including in statements to Congress.
All of that would seem to push Trump’s actions closer to meeting Graham’s standard, circa 1999, of sullying the integrity of his office. But Graham seems to have narrowed his view of impeachment’s cleansing power. In a statement issued after the conclusion of the Manafort and Cohen proceedings, Graham said, “the American legal system is working its will.” But Graham also emphasized that there have been no findings of conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, a major focus of energy among Democratic opponents of Trump.
Graham’s revised stance reinforces the widely held assumption that with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, no amount of evidence of misconduct by Trump will lead to legislative action against him. Many Democrats are framing the 2018 midterm election as an opportunity to retake control of the House of Representatives specifically so that impeachment proceedings can be initiated against the president.