“Sure. I mean ... show me something that ... is a crime,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to Axios on HBO in an interview on Tuesday. “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.”
That interview came two days before Trump’s acting chief of staff acknowledged publicly there was an explicit deal with Ukraine; the White House held up bipartisan military aid to try to force a Ukrainian investigation into whether Russia really interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump. When Axios reached back out to Graham’s office to get a response, a spokesman said the senator still hadn’t seen anything that was impeachable.
But there’s a distinction between thinking the president should be impeached today and supporting an impeachment inquiry that looks further into what we know about the Trump administration’s work in Ukraine to benefit Trump politically. The most dramatic reading of Graham’s comments is that he thinks the matter should be investigated, which is exactly what House Democrats are doing in their impeachment inquiry. At the very least, Graham, in declining to defend Trump, is giving the White House a public warning not to dig its hole any deeper.
Graham’s comments could signal an inflection point in this impeachment debate. He has in the past twisted and omitted facts to protect Trump, and he’s warning that at some point, he won’t anymore.
Graham isn’t the only Republican lawmaker to provide some public evidence of cracks on impeachment. On Friday, Rep. Francis Rooney (Fla.) hinted he would be open to impeachment, saying he wanted “to get the facts and do the right thing because I’ll be looking at my children a lot longer than I’m looking to anybody in this building.” A day later, Rooney announced he wouldn’t be running for reelection. That’s a personal decision, but we know from other Republicans’ decisions to retire that exasperation with defending Trump has fueled their motivation to leave Washington.
And never before have Republicans in Washington been stretched so thin in defending Trump. Amid the impeachment inquiry, he made a major foreign policy move he had to know they would detest: He started pulling U.S. troops out of Syria in a move Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned was “a grave mistake.” Nearly 130 House Republicans voted for a resolution criticizing the move. (In contrast, only six House Republicans are calling for some sort of an investigation into Ukraine and Trump, so far.)
And then Trump awarded next year’s Group of Seven summit location to his own Doral golf club in Florida.
Before all this, many Republicans coalesced around this defense of Trump regarding that July phone call with Ukraine’s president: It was inappropriate but not impeachable. According to a Washington Post analysis of their comments, no Senate Republicans support an impeachment inquiry in the House — not even the vocal Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) — but at least 15 have expressed concerns or say they have questions about what Trump did. The rest, 38, support Trump unequivocally.
It’s a big step from “inappropriate” to “impeachable,” but it is a step on the same path.
But Republican strategist Doug Heye, who is in touch with Republican lawmakers, doesn’t think any of these comments are significant enough to move the party. Someone with more to lose politically speaking out against Trump would be a needle-mover. “To some extent, this is the forest and trees, or even individual leaves,” he said. “Unless this is somebody whose roots are going to be deeply in the ground over the next few years and they’re willing to take incoming [fire], I don’t think the substance is there yet.”
Republicans who don’t want to ditch Trump are protected by the fact that impeachment and, to a lesser extent, quid pro quos are subjective. The Constitution says a president can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but Congress determines what that means. There doesn’t have to be evidence of an actual crime, but there also isn’t a definite bar a president has to meet to be impeached.
And where some legal experts see a clear quid pro quo in that Ukraine phone call (“I would like you to do us a favor though,” Trump says), Graham doesn’t. Despite indicating Thursday afternoon there was a quid pro quo, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney that afternoon tried to clean up his comments in a statement, and kept backtracking on “Fox News Sunday,” saying: “I never said there was a quid pro quo, ’cause there isn’t.”
So there’s enough wiggle room for lawmakers to plausibly say they don’t think Trump should be impeached because they don’t see a clear quid pro quo.
But the fact that any Republican, like Graham and Rooney and Romney, are still out there criticizing him or giving him warnings about their red lines means we may have an answer to what is perhaps the ultimate question in this impeachment debate: whether, for a significant number of Republicans, there is such a thing as Trump going too far.