The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lindsey Graham kicked off Barr’s testimony by whipping up a Hillary Clinton conspiracy theory

Less than 10 minutes into a hearing on Russian election interference, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) shifted the conversation to Hillary Clinton. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s metamorphosis over the past three years has been remarkable, transforming from one of President Trump’s harshest critics on the campaign trail into one of his staunchest defenders on Capitol Hill.

That is particularly convenient for Trump at this moment given that Graham (R-S.C.) is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that on Wednesday hosted Attorney General William P. Barr to discuss the results of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. That meant that Graham got to control the interview of Barr and to offer an opening statement, setting the table for the day’s discussion.

That opening statement focused heavily on wrongdoing by a 2016 presidential campaign. Not Trump’s: Hillary Clinton’s.

Graham’s argument about Clinton operated along two tracks. The first was to suggest that the 2015-2016 investigation into her use of a private email server was flawed because it involved biased FBI agents. The second was to suggest that Clinton’s campaign attempted to obstruct that investigation by destroying information.

For anyone who’s tuned in to Fox News or read a conservative website since Trump took office, these arguments will seem familiar. As attention turned to Russia’s interference effort and we learned about the probe into whether Trump’s campaign aided that effort, Trump’s allies built a robust countervailing narrative focused to a large degree on the points introduced by Graham in his opening comments. For those who haven’t been tracking that alternative presentation of questionable behavior in 2016, allow us to explain.

The FBI agents

“What do we know?” Graham said while shifting his attention to Clinton on Wednesday morning. “We know that the person in charge of investigating hated Trump’s guts. I don’t know how Mr. Mueller felt about Trump but I don’t think anybody on our side believes that he had a personal animosity toward the president to the point he couldn’t do his job.”

Except Trump himself, of course, who repeatedly claimed that Mueller was biased against him personally.

Graham here is referring to Peter Strzok, a former agent who’d led the investigation into a personal email server that Clinton used while she led the State Department during President Barack Obama’s first term in office. That server became central to criticism of Clinton, and the FBI began investigating in 2015 whether she’d broken any laws by, for example, transmitting classified information over an insecure system. In July 2016, FBI Director James B. Comey announced that the FBI wouldn’t recommend criminal charges, though he declared that classified information had been transmitted and that she was “extremely careless” in her handling of the information.

What Graham focused on was text messages sent between Strzok and his colleague Lisa Page, with whom he was in a romantic relationship. Those messages will be familiar to most close news-watchers, including disparaging comments made by Strzok and Page about Trump personally.

“'Oh he’s’ — Trump’s — ‘abysmal. I keep hoping this charade will end and people will just dump him,’” Graham quoted one message as saying. (It’s worth noting that Graham himself had, in early 2016, called Trump a “kook” and “crazy.”) He highlighted one exchange in which Strzok and Page discuss an “insurance policy” and talk about preventing Trump from winning.

If the pair had been inclined to block his election, they didn’t actually do so. In testimony before Congress, both Strzok and Page admitted that they could have leaked damaging information but that they didn’t. The insurance policy text message wasn’t about planning to undermine Trump but, instead, Strzok specifically preparing for a possible Trump victory, however unlikely it seemed.

A report from the Department of Justice’s inspector general determined that the text messages suggested “a willingness to take official action” to hurt Trump’s chances, but that there was not evidence that the investigation into Clinton had been tainted by bias.

“These are the people that made a decision that Clinton didn’t do anything wrong,” Graham said on Wednesday. “And,” he added, “that counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign was warranted” — introducing doubt about the validity of the probe that Barr was there to discuss.

The email server

Graham then decided to re-litigate the email server anyway.

“As to cooperation in the Clinton investigation, I told you what the Trump people did,” Graham said. “Tell you a little bit about what the Clinton people did.”

He continued:

“There was a protective order for the server issued by the House and there was a request by the State Department to preserve all the information on the server. Paul Combetta, after having the protective order, used a software program called BleachBit to wipe this email server clean. ... Eighteen devices possessed by Secretary Clinton she used to do business as secretary. How many of them were turned over to the FBI? None. Two of them couldn’t be turned over because Judith Casper took a hammer and destroyed two of them. What happened to her? Nothing.”

What happened in the Clinton email situation was this.

After leaving the State Department, Clinton’s staff had attorneys evaluate which emails from her private server needed to be retained under federal rules meant to preserve official records and which were personal in nature. More than 30,000 were identified as personal and slated for deletion. They weren’t deleted immediately.

After a House committee investigating the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, asked that the emails be preserved and messages related to Benghazi turned over, a technician realized that he hadn’t deleted the emails and proceeded to do so, using a free software program that would ensure no trace of the messages remained on the device.

This seems more nefarious than it is — as is the smashing of devices with hammers. Because of how data is deleted from computer operating systems, traces can remain on physical devices even after they’ve been “deleted” by the system, allowing the information to be recovered. For people whose emails might contain sensitive information, that means that it’s necessary to take additional steps to protect those communications. BleachBit is a software tool for eliminating any trace of data from a drive. Destroying the device physically makes it impossible to read the data in another, more direct way.

There’s been no evidence presented that the deleted emails included information that might be incriminating for Clinton. That they were deleted, though, gave Trump space to imply that they were.

That these acts seem nefarious is precisely the point. Graham seemed clearly to be trying to gin up concern about Clinton’s actions — well-worn concerns by now — to mute the effect of results of the Mueller probe that Barr was there to discuss. He raised the subject of the FBI agents for the same reason.

When Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) disparaged the Republicans’ questions by commenting snarkily about the need to “take another closer look at Hillary Clinton’s emails” later in the Barr hearing, Graham saw an opportunity.

“We might do that,” Graham said.