Along with his close ally John McCain, GOP senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was a fierce critic of Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries, and often for good reason.
As a result, Graham saw the red carpet rolled out for him on countless TV shows. But now, the South Carolina senator is stepping forward and taking a leading role in questioning the way the Justice Department and FBI initiated their Russia probe of the Trump campaign. So he is suddenly on a hot seat, with critics accusing him of political motives.
The reason for the ire against Graham is that on Friday he and Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley sent the Justice Department a letter urging an investigation of Christopher Steele, the former British spy who was paid by the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS in 2016 to create a dossier on candidate Trump’s possible connections to Russia. Steele was ultimately paid $168,000 by Fusion GPS for the unverified and sometimes salacious dossier. Fusion GPS paid Steele out of a kitty of $1.02 million that it received from a law firm representing the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Senators Graham and Grassley said their reading of classified Justice Department files gives them reason to suspect that Steele may have lied about whom he talked to about his findings and what spin he put on them.
That’s important because the Steele dossier may have been used in part to secure federal-court warrants for the surveillance of dozens of Americans, including top Trump-campaign officials. If that happened, it is an outrageous intervention of U.S. intelligence agencies into the 2016 campaign that would surpass anything Russia likely did. Graham also told NBC’s Meet the Press today that the way the FBI seems to have allowed politics to taint its probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server “should scare us all. “It could be Trump today, you tomorrow.”
Graham made clear he still thinks that President Trump has a “counterproductive” and soft view of the Vladimir Putin regime in Russia and that he supports Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign. “But there’s other things about the Department of Justice and this investigation that bother me greatly,” he added. “And I think we need a special counsel to look at those things. . . . The FBI is a great organization, but no organization . . . can’t be looked at.”
Chief among Graham’s concerns is the FBI’s probe into classified material found on the Clinton email server. FBI agent Peter Strzok, the bureau’s No. 2 counterintelligence specialist, was a key player in that probe. He was responsible for changing the wording of the official FBI report on the Clinton email affair. The original FBI finding called Clinton’s actions “grossly negligent” — which is the precise wording used in the Espionage Act to describe a crime. Strzok changed “grossly negligent” to “extremely careless,” which gave Comey and the Justice Department cover for the decision to let Hillary Clinton off the hook.
As soon as the email probe was concluded, in July 2016, Strzok was tasked with setting up an investigation into possible Russian contacts with the Trump campaign. In May 2017, Mueller hired Strzok to be a key investigator on his team, after Mueller took over the probe as special counsel.
But Strzok didn’t last long there. It was discovered that he had exchanged thousands of text messages with Lisa Page, a fellow FBI agent on the Mueller team with whom he was having an adulterous affair. The texts revealed the extreme hostility that Strzok and Page felt toward Donald Trump.
During the 2016 campaign, while Strzok was helping lead the probe of Hillary Clinton’s misuse of classified information, Strzok called Trump “an enormous douche” and worried what would become of the United States if Trump became president. He also called Trump a “f***ing idiot” and made reference to an “insurance policy” that the FBI had — apparently to ensure that Trump wouldn’t get elected.
In his Meet the Press appearance, Graham laid out his concerns: “I want to know: Did this FBI agent feel like he had to take the law in his own hands and create an insurance policy against an outcome of an election that he may not have liked?” Small wonder that Senator Graham called Strzok a “political hack.”
Something rotten was going on in the Justice Department and the FBI during the 2016 campaign, and it was independent of any wrongdoing by Trump campaign officials.
Graham also pointed out that Bruce Ohr, the No. 4 ranking official in the Justice Department, has been demoted because of unauthorized contacts he had with Fusion GPS, where, incredibly, his wife, an expert on Russia, happened to work during the 2016 campaign. Even more incredibly, she just happened to be digging for dirt on Trump.
But host Chuck Todd wasn’t interested in what Graham had found in his perusal of Justice’s classified files. Instead, he peppered Graham with skeptical questions, at one point asking him, about Strzok: “Do you think it was a political bias? How do you know it wasn’t something that he had found in his investigation?” This, despite the fact that Strzok sent most of his anti-Trump texts before he joined the Russia investigation, in July 2016.
Nor is Todd the only NBC analyst questioning Graham’s actions. Andrea Mitchell, a reporter well known for her cozy relationship with Hillary Clinton, helpfully tweeted out on Friday: “McCain camp taking issue with the latest moves by #LindseyGrahamSC.”
She was referring in large part to John Weaver, McCain’s consultant during his 2000 and 2008 presidential runs, and Mark Salter, McCain’s frequent speechwriter and book collaborator. Weaver tweeted on Friday: “I’ve known Lindsey Graham for many years and sat in the first meeting between him and John McCain. Couldn’t be sadder today.” The same day, Salter tweeted: “From all credible accounts, Steele is a solid guy, who was so worried that America’s enemy, Putin, had compromising info on Trump that he exposed himself to risk to bring it to the attention of US law enforcement. That’s the act of an ally not a criminal.”
Senator Graham should buckle his seat belt, because more of this kind of criticism is coming his way. Something rotten was going on in the Justice Department and the FBI during the 2016 campaign, and it was independent of any wrongdoing by Trump-campaign officials like the sleazy Paul Manafort. Just as Attorney General Jeff Sessions concluded that he had to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia probe, it is also obvious that the stonewalling Senators Graham and Grassley have faced from officials at the DOJ and FBI means that an independent investigation by Congress or a special counsel may be needed.
The more that Senator Graham demands answers from Justice, the more he’ll be accused of political motives and partisan posturing. The media should report that criticism, but they should also be able — as in the Trump-Russia probe — to acknowledge there are legitimate issues that demand answers. We’ve learned from past experience that our law-enforcement agencies need to be held to the highest ethical standards even as they conduct legitimate probes. There is no reason the media can’t walk, chew gum, and report on two investigations at the same time.