White House

Why Is Lindsey Graham Clinging to the ‘No Quid Pro Quo’ Defense?

Senator Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.) speaks at CPAC at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., February 28, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Because he’s not sure a quid pro quo would be defensible.

When the written record of President Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky was released, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham was adamant that there was no quid pro quo in which President Trump threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless Zelensky opened official investigations into the family of Joe Biden and a conspiracy theory about the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“From my point of view, to impeach any president over a phone call like this would be insane,” Graham told reporters in September. “What would’ve been wrong is if the president had suggested to the Ukrainian government that if you don’t do what I want you to do regarding the Bidens, we’re not going to give you the aid. That was the accusation; that did not remotely happen.”

The congressional testimony and public statements of a string of Trump administration officials in recent weeks have made Graham’s assertion that there was no quid pro quo increasingly untenable.

William Taylor, President Trump’s top diplomat in Ukraine, testified that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told him military aid was indeed dependent on Ukraine releasing a statement announcing an investigation into Burisma, the gas company that paid Joe Biden’s son $50,000 per month.

“Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,” Taylor told Congress.

On Tuesday, the House released a transcript of Sondland’s revised testimony, in which Sondland admitted to such a quid pro quo. “I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland testified.

Several Republican senators are preparing to shift toward a more plausible defense that there may have been a quid pro quo, but that it wasn’t an impeachable offense. But Graham is still clinging to the argument that there was no quid pro quo. “I still believe that the transcript that I read is not a quid pro quo. Sunderland [sic] is here one day, over here the next,” Graham told reporters in the Capitol earlier this week. “The president of the Ukraine said, ‘no, there was no quid pro quo.’ So, I’m just where I was.” Graham faced derision for saying he wouldn’t read the transcripts of testimony being released, but he did tell reporters he read a “summary” of Sondland’s testimony and noted that Sondland “said he presumed after having talked to people” that the military aid depended on an investigation of Burisma.

So why haven’t Graham and some other congressional Republicans begun making the more plausible “bad but not impeachable” defense of Trump? One reason, Commentary’s Noah Rothman argues, is that Trump won’t yet let Republicans make that argument. (See, for example, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s about-face on whether there had been a quid pro quo.) But even if Trump adjusts the party-line, Graham, appears to have painted himself into a corner where making the “bad but not impeachable” argument would be difficult.

“Senator, if there was a quid pro quo, would that be an impeachable offense in your opinion?” a reporter in the Capitol asked Graham this week. “You know, I don’t know,” he replied. “We put conditions on aid all the time. But if you said, ‘I’m not going to give you money unless you investigate my political opponent to help me politically,’ that would be completely out of bounds.”

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