President Donald Trump just can’t quit the Russia investigation—and these days, that means that congressional Republicans can’t either, whether they want to or not.
For more than a year, Trump has made clear he expects his allies on Capitol Hill to leverage their investigatory might to provide a full accounting of how Robert Mueller’s two-year long probe came to be.
The brunt of that responsibility to essentially try and prove that it was all an ill-conceived, “deep state”-driven coup has fallen to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ever since the Mueller probe ended, Graham has made continual, but forceful, promises to “get to the bottom” of how it began, egged on by the president himself.
That effort got a major boost—or, possibly, a shove—last week after Trump commuted his longtime ally Roger Stone’s 40-month prison sentence. The brazenness of the commutation prompted Mueller, who indicted Stone, to criticize the move in a rare op-ed in The Washington Post—after which Graham tweeted that he would call Mueller to testify in the Judiciary Committee. The op-ed, Graham suggested, made Mueller fair game and, after all, Democrats had requested he testify.
In an interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday, Graham confirmed his intention to call Mueller, saying he would want the hearing to happen in September or October, near the conclusion of his committee’s Crossfire Hurricane probe.
“I was reluctant to call him,” Graham said of Mueller, “because it was hard to watch [him testify] in the House. I just think, if he decided to comment on the Stone case... OK, let’s hear what you’ve got to say.”
Trump has not yet weighed in on Graham’s move, and White House spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. In May, however, when the president was regularly fulminating about “Obamagate”—a rebrand of his theory that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, tried to kill his 2016 presidential campaign—Trump tweeted demands at Graham to haul in Obama administration figures, chiefly the former president himself, to testify.
“Do it @LindseyGrahamSC, just do it,” tweeted Trump. “No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talk!” Graham responded diplomatically that it would set a “bad precedent” to call in ex-presidents to testify.
But Republicans and even prominent figures in pro-Trump media are split, not just as to whether Mueller should be called back to the Hill but whether it’s a good idea at all to relitigate his probe at a time when the president is struggling both to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and with his re-election bid against former Vice President Joe Biden.
Fox News star Tucker Carlson, who moonlights as an informal adviser to President Trump, is in the camp that seems to believe that after years of Trump partisans claiming that the alleged “corruption” of the federal Russia investigations was the biggest American scandal since Watergate, it’s time to dial it back.
In a recent episode, Carlson decried how many GOP bigwigs, including some on-air at his own network, were so intensely focused on Russiagate at the expense of policies that could affect millions of Americans. Carlson, who was a major player in advocating for Trump’s commutation of Stone, also lightly chided his own program for at times giving too much airtime to that kind of “partisan junk food.”
“Who cares how many Benghazi hearings we have? We are supposed to care, but why should we? How did Peter Strzok’s text messages become more important than saving American jobs from foreign nationals who are taking them?” the Fox host said on a June 30 broadcast. “It is lunacy! We fall for it every time.”
But several Trump confidants at Fox have no intention to stop. During a July 8 interview with former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, host and Trump adviser Sean Hannity launched a lengthy diatribe about former FBI employees Lisa Page and Peter Strzok and their so-called anti-Trump “insurance policy” to get Hillary Clinton elected. The topic also came up the following night during Hannity's interview with the president. Fox host Pete Hegseth, who has personally advised the president, also spoke at length about Strzok, Page, and other Russiagate figures who should be held to account while celebrating Stone's commutation in a July 12 segment.
That fixation has made life complicated for Republicans outside of Trump’s noisy base, chief among them Graham. There are prominent Trump allies who think the senator—a harsh Trump critic in 2016 who quickly morphed into the president’s golfing buddy at the dawn of the administration—isn’t actually serious about “investigating the investigators.” Others simply don’t trust the South Carolina Republican to do an adequate job.
“I don’t quite understand Sen. Graham… I’m never quite sure what he’s up to,” John Dowd, an attorney who once helmed President Trump’s personal legal team during the Russia probe, told The Daily Beast on Thursday afternoon. “When he called [Rod] Rosenstein, he didn’t even ask him… ‘What was the factual basis to appoint a special counsel?’ So, I’m not sure how reliable any [hearing of his] would be…I’m not sure what he’s about. But I thought his examination of Rosenstein was poor.”
Dowd continued, “I read in the paper that the Democrats want to hear from Mueller [again, too]. I thought Graham was a Republican! I don’t understand what the guy’s doing! So what if the Democrats want [Mueller]. He’s the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee. [Why do it just] because the Democrats want it?”
For Graham, the stakes of litigating Obamagate are only getting more pronounced. Until recent years, the senator had long guarded his reputation as an amiable member of the chamber who defended the notion that the Senate served as a guardrail against hyperpartisanship. But with Trump’s election prospects dimming, and the party hoping for a reprise of the late election scandals that plagued Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run, Graham has faced additional pressure to hold hearings or produce some sort of October campaign jolt.
“We have an election coming up in November, and the American people need to know the truth about the Obama administration’s corruption, who was involved, and how to prevent this total breach of the American people’s trust in our nation’s law enforcement from happening again,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who sits on the Judiciary Committee with Graham.
Graham also faces some pressure in his home state, where he’s seeking a fourth Senate term this November. Having comfortably advanced past a GOP primary, he now faces Democrat Jaime Harrison, who has raised a staggering $29 million to fuel what could be the senator’s toughest challenge to date.
It’s the understanding in Senate GOP circles that Graham has broad latitude from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to pursue this investigation, even if it means calling in high-profile figures like Mueller. In a speech backing up the probe in May, McConnell said Graham had “ball control” over the matter.
Graham told The Daily Beast he had not recently spoken to Trump or his deputies about calling Mueller, nor has he personally been in touch with Mueller’s team. He has not spoken to Feinstein, though he stated that the California Democrat has not called him to rescind her call for Mueller’s testimony. A spokesperson for WilmerHale, the law firm where Mueller currently works, did not return a request for comment on Mueller’s willingness to testify.
Asked to respond to Dowd’s assertion that it was foolish to accede to Democrats’ wishes to have Mueller testify, Graham said, “I just think I’m investigating the investigators, giving them a chance to talk about their work product… It’d be unbelievable for the Judiciary Committee not to have oversight.”
Meanwhile, Democrats, who have struggled to keep pace with the Trump administration’s efforts to render the impact of these investigations moot, largely expressed disgust at the GOP desire to continue digging.
But if Republicans want to forge ahead, some Democratic lawmakers say, it’s not the worst thing in the world to spend the run-up to the election reigniting public interest in a detailed account of possible lawbreaking by the president.
“They are like a bunch of criminals returning to the scene of the crime—they just can’t leave it alone. It’s a bizarre re-election strategy,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “I don’t think they have made a prudential judgement that this is the best way for the President to get more votes in 2020.”
Though Graham insisted he was only satisfying Democrats’ wishes by calling Mueller, Raskin, for one, did not seem obliged.
“I think the whole thing is mad, I don't know what else to say about it,” he told The Daily Beast.