It’s “too early to tell” if the public was starting to turn against President Donald Trump in such a way as to make impeachment politically tenable, Sen. Lindsey Graham told McClatchy Wednesday — a view at odds with most Republicans’ insistence that such a step shouldn’t even be a talking point.
Graham is the one of the few major Republican congressional voices to mention such a notion, which came in response to a question from McClatchy.
The GOP has been circulating talking points aiming to ease the political impact of Tuesday’s plea by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen. Cohen said under oath that Trump directed him to pay two women not to speak about their affairs with then-candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Congressional Republicans Wednesday were largely silent on the impeachment issue, and saying they wouldn’t comment further until Special Counsel Robert Mueller wraps up his investigation.
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Graham agreed Mueller’s report will be crucial, adding he was waiting for the investigation’s conclusion to decide whether impeaching Trump would be appropriate. He also suggested he was mainly concerned about whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election, rather than whether the president tried to offer money to cover up affairs.
But the senator conceded he was troubled by Cohen’s implication of Trump, which was part of a larger guilty plea involving campaign finance violations and tax fraud.
“Yeah, that’s a very serious accusation,” Graham said. “But the heart and soul of why Mueller exists is whether or not there was collusion (with Russia). I’m not saying it’s not serious. I just don’t believe we’re gonna know enough until Mueller issues his report.”
As a prosecutor in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial nearly 20 years ago, Graham said Clinton must be impeached to “restor(e) honor and integrity to the office” of the president. As a House member in the late 1990s, he argued Clinton should be expelled for seeking to hide evidence of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The Republican-led House did impeach Clinton, who was acquitted in the Senate after a five week trial and finished out his second term.
On Wednesday, the senator did not elaborate on why Clinton’s actions damaged the integrity of the office but Trump’s potential actions involving hush money might not.
A Trump ally, Graham did insist there was no conflict between his assessment of Trump now and how he viewed the Clinton furor two decades earlier.
Graham emphasized that, in 1998, he waited until he saw then-Special Counsel Ken Starr’s report on the scandal involving Clinton’s relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky before jumping on the impeachment bandwagon. He said he would use Mueller’s report as a similar guidepost.
He also called impeachment a “political process” that derives much of its power from public opinion of the president at the center of the controversy.
“When it got to the Senate, polling for the president was strong among the Democratic base,” Graham recalled of the Clinton impeachment trial. “Independents thought impeachment was too far. And no matter what I said, the politics took over.
“I understand that today better than I did then that for impeachment to be successful, you’re gonna have to have the public believe that conduct is such that the office needs to be cleansed.”
The November midterm elections will be a referendum on public opinion surrounding Trump. Democrats, who have a chance at retaking control of the House, have been hesitant to use impeachment as a campaign talking point, fearful of alienating voters who think such a move would be too extreme.
But Republicans insist Democrats would pursue impeachment proceedings if Democrats win the majority, and have been using this possibility as a reason for voters who support the president to side with the GOP in November.
Graham has floated this potential scenario himself. On conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s radio show earlier this month, Graham warned that Democrats would “go nuts and try to impeach this guy every day” if they were in the majority.
On Wednesday, asked if he could foresee a situation where he would support Democrats in impeaching Trump, Graham said, “I don’t know. I want to hear what Mueller says.”