The totality of it suggests that an influential senator has undergone a rather conveniently timed shift when it comes to Trump’s conspiracy theories about Ukraine. Now that the theories don’t need to be vouched for in the name of defending Trump, Graham appears to be distancing himself from them.
(He even entertained the idea that Trump’s own lawyer might be getting manipulated by Russia, which it bears emphasizing is extraordinary.)
But the most interesting exchange might have come toward the end, when Graham defended Trump’s retaliatory removal of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council on Friday. In that case, the misinformation and conspiracy theories were decidedly coming from Graham.
“I think his reassignment was justified,” Graham began. “I don’t think he could be effective at the NSC. As much as I support our military people telling the truth when asked — it’s important they do.”
Then, though, Graham speculated that Vindman might have been part of some kind of plot against Trump.
“What have I learned in the last two years? CIA agents, Department of State — Department of Justice lawyers, FBI agents have a political agenda, and they acted on it,” Graham said. “And we found that out through the FISA investigation.”
Graham then promoted the theory that Vindman was actively working with the whistleblower to bring the Ukraine scandal to light.
“As to Colonel Vindman, who was not allowed to be asked questions about his connection to the alleged whistleblower . . .” Graham said.
Brennan cut in and noted that Vindman was asked about ties to the whistleblower. But Graham later rekindled the argument.
“I can promise you this: He’s never been asked questions, did you leak to the whistleblower?” Graham said. “People in his chain of command have been suspicious of him regarding his political point of view.”
Vindman was, in fact, asked about this in both his private and public testimony. He said he discussed Trump’s July 25 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with two people outside the White House: State Department official George Kent and an unnamed member of the intelligence community. He opted not to identify the person in the intelligence community — citing the advice of his lawyers — but he said both people he talked to were “cleared U.S. government officials with appropriate need-to-know.”
He also said he did not even know who the whistleblower was and that he never leaked information:
REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OHIO): And Colonel, you never leaked information?VINDMAN: I never did, never would. That is preposterous that I would do that.
Is it possible the person Vindman spoke with in the intelligence community member wound up being the whistleblower? It is, although we have no concrete reason to believe that. It’s theoretically possible his lawyers have seen speculation about the identity of the whistleblower and knew that answering such questions might contribute to outing that person, whose anonymity is protected by law.
But Vindman also said he does not know who the whistleblower is. In other words, he is saying he was not knowingly part of any plot to blow the whistle. What’s more — and perhaps more importantly — labeling this a “leak” to the whistleblower suggests this is information that the whistleblower would not have been authorized to hear. Vindman said explicitly that the person he spoke with was cleared to receive such information.
The most conspiratorial part of Graham’s interview, though, is when he suggests this all might be akin to FISA application abuses and people like Peter Strzok allegedly having a political agenda to take down Trump.
Republicans have done little to question the actual veracity of Vindman’s testimony and have instead suggested he engaged in some kind of plot — without entertaining the idea that, like many others aware of the Ukraine machinations, he was legitimately concerned.
Even many GOP senators have acknowledged that the whole Ukraine thing was problematic, so why would Vindman talking about it with someone in the intel community be some kind of breach? This is exactly why we have whistleblower protection laws: so that objectionable things can be reported by people who don’t otherwise have the ability to speak publicly about them, and that these things can then be investigated.
Graham concluded: “We’re not going to live in a world where the Department of Justice, the CIA and the FBI can cut corners, go after Trump, and nobody gives a damn. As to Colonel Vindman, thank you for your service, but I’m going to — hopefully somebody will ask questions of you about the role you played with the whistleblower, if any. And if there’s nothing there, fine.”
Again, even GOP senators have said that what officials such as Vindman described in their testimony was wrong and “inappropriate,” but Graham is acting as if bringing it to light was some kind of plot.
The problem with Graham’s and the GOP’s theory about Vindman and the whistleblower is that, even if it’s proven that he was a source, there is no indication that anything would be wrong with it. It’s highly speculative on its face and seems more geared toward sowing doubt about U.S. government officials whom Trump doesn’t like.
In other words, it’s the kind of thing that Graham warned about earlier in the same interview.