Now that John McCain is gone, his fellow Senate Republicans—uh, no. I was going to write “have an opportunity to honor the best parts of his legacy by stepping into his shoes and finally taking a firm line with their out-of-control president,” but how can I or anyone possibly write such a sentence with a straight face?
These are the people who responded to last week’s tumultuous news events—the Michael Cohen plea, the Paul Manafort conviction, the news that Cohen and Trump accountant Allen Weisselberg are flipping, Trump’s twisted remarks about making flipping illegal, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ surprise announcement that he is a vertebrate after all—by giving Trump more power, not less. A year ago, Charles Grassley and Lindsey Graham made it clear that there would be hell to pay if Trump tried to fire Sessions. Last week, they gave him the green light.
And now their moral leader, to the extent that they were capable of welcoming one, is dead, four days short of his 82nd birthday. I do think McCain was a great public figure, who, had he served in Congress a generation or two ago, would have been a master legislator and conciliator. His career happened to coincide, though, with the total moral corruption of his party, which wasn’t really his fault—except for his contribution to that corruption, i.e., his taking Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate. In his later years, I always wanted him to do more to call out that rot. But he did a lot of good, standing up against torture and against racist immigration hysteria. Now, though, the GOP’s moral leader is gone.
Still very much alive, despite all those well-done steaks and that extra scoop of vanilla for dessert, is their immoral leader (and by the way: a president of the United States expressly not invited to a senator’s funeral; I’ll be watching Hannity this week to see how he manages to declare this an act of petulance on McCain’s part). And the investigation of Trump, what with all the events I listed above, most especially the flip of Weisselberg, has now intensified greatly, and we need to start thinking seriously about what this crazy man is capable of doing.
Suppose, now that Trump has Grassley and Graham’s blessing, he fires Sessions. And suppose the hack who replaces Sessions fires Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and then the hack who replaces Rosenstein fires Robert Mueller. This could all happen this week. Trump is cornered, and he knows it. And remember, another thing that happened last week was that Trump said he is “totally allowed” to take over the investigation.
What do McCain’s Republican colleagues do then? What, in particular, does Graham do? It was operatically ironic, was it not, that during the very week when his dear friend, a man who came as close to standing for principle as any Republican of the last quarter century, was drawing his last mortal breaths, Graham told Trump he could go ahead and behave in the most unprincipled fashion you can imagine and fire an attorney general for not being sufficiently loyal to him.
I really wonder sometimes how that man gets out of bed in the morning. At other times, I wonder what Trump has on him. But whatever the case, it is now incumbent upon Graham to carry the McCain torch. He was McCain’s BFF, for starters, but it’s also the case that there’s no one else in that caucus who has the gravitas even to begin to try to play that role.
Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate intel committee and hasn’t been uniformly awful, could maybe answer that call. But the rest of them are either to the right of Attila the Hun, nonentities on the national stage, profiles in anti-courage (Susan Collins, with her trust in Brett Kavanaugh when he says that Roe is settled law), or just too wet behind the ears (conservatives love Ben Sasse, but he hasn’t actually done anything in the Senate yet).
Graham is the co-sponsor of a bill that would attempt to protect Mueller from being fired. In 25 years of paying pretty close attention to this stuff, I’ve never heard a legislator issue more regular denunciations of his own bill than Graham has on this one. It’s not needed, he kept saying last fall. Trump’s not firing anybody.
Well, now that Graham himself has told Trump he can fire Sessions—a dismissal that would almost surely set off the chain reaction I described above—isn’t such a firing more likely? Sure it is. So reflect on Graham’s position here. On the one hand, he filed a bill last year that spelled out consequences for firing Mueller. I’m sure he got a lot of congrats for that on his Washington dinner-party circuit. But on the other hand, he just used his position—and it is a position of unique prominence and authority—to wink to Trump that stacking the Justice Department would be fine.
And remember, Graham is one of the better ones!
My number of good sources inside the Senate Republican Conference is exactly zero, but I’ve been watching these people long enough to draw certain conclusions, as for that matter you have too. In the coming days, we will hear endless speeches from them about how they will endeavor to uphold their great departed colleague’s legacy. And then, when the cameras have been packed away, they’ll hand Trump the keys to the candy store. As the old adage has it, watch not what they say but what they do.