The attacks were upsetting to Graham, who warned that firing Sessions as attorney general would be a sign that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election could be in trouble. It would damage the Trump administration and Sessions, with whom he served in the Senate.
“If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay,” Graham said to reporters at the time. “Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency, unless Mueller did something wrong.”
On Thursday night, one day removed from Sessions resigning at Trump’s request, Graham was asked by Fox News host Martha MacCallum about his comments last year. She played back the clip of the senator’s statements. Now that Sessions had been forced out, would there be “holy hell to pay?"
His answer came in the form of two questions, making for an uncomfortable moment of television.
“So, when was that?” Graham asked MacCallum about his 2017 comments. “What year?”
“July of 2017,” MacCallum said.
“Things have changed,” MacCallum said.
The senior senator from South Carolina laughed again before explaining what was seemingly an about-face.
“What I’ve been saying for months is every president deserves an attorney general they have confidence in and they can work with,” he said on “The Story With Martha MacCallum.”
“I like Jeff Sessions. I’ve known Jeff for a long time. I hope he goes and runs for his old Senate seat in Alabama. It’s clear to me it’s not working, was not working between Attorney General Sessions and President Trump.”
Graham then pivoted to Sessions’s replacement, acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, who has been critical of the special counsel investigation and is being called on by Democrats and government watchdog groups to recuse himself from those proceedings. Graham, who called the acting attorney general “a good pick,” said he was “not alarmed at all about Mueller being interfered with” now that Whitaker is in charge.
“I think he’s going to be as fair and impartial as Eric Holder and Loretta E. Lynch were,” Graham said on Thursday. He chuckled as he said that, perhaps because he was among the Republicans who called for an investigation of Lynch’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe.
“The bottom line is this is hysteria more than anything else,” he said. “I am here to tell you and everyone else that Mr. Mueller will be allowed to do his job, and hopefully that investigation will come to a conclusion here pretty soon.”
As The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Aaron Blake both noted, Graham’s public shift toward removing Sessions as attorney general started in the summer. In August, he suggested to reporters that removing Sessions “sooner rather than later” would be understandable, given that the attorney general’s relationship with the president, as the senator described it to NBC’s “Today” show, was “beyond repair.” That same month, the president called the Justice Department under Sessions “a total joke.”
“It can’t go on like this,” Graham told reporters Aug. 28 of Sessions continuing as Trump’s attorney general. Graham, who has stated that any replacement would need to promise to the Senate that Mueller would be allowed to finish his investigation, added, “The idea that you have to keep Jeff Sessions as attorney general to protect Mueller, I don’t buy into that."
Graham concluded: “I’m just saying what I think most of you cover every day: This has got to stop, one way or the other. This is not good for the country.”
Since news broke Wednesday of Sessions’s ouster, Twitter users, including former Democratic senator Barbara Boxer of California, have been tweeting reminders at Graham of what he said last year. The Post’s Briana Ellison shared how some people are including the phrase “holy hell,” the video of his statements or both in their tweets to Graham.
Graham said he has a lot of confidence in Mueller, who the senator believes is in “the final stages of doing his report.” He added that he was planning to meet with Whitaker next week.
“I’m going to have him assure me that he’s going to let Mr. Mueller do his job, and if there’s any interference, you’ll be the first to hear about it on Fox News,” he said to MacCallum. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m not concerned about that. If I were, I would tell you.”