Skip to main content
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan June 28, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC12E21409F0
FixGov

Trump’s alarming deference to Putin and Lindsay Graham’s weird deference to Trump: This week in impeachment

We will never get to the truth about the Trump presidency until we understand why the President of the United States is so fond of Vladimir Putin and why Lindsay Graham is so fond of Trump.

This week the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president, an action that has happened only three times in American history. (President Nixon resigned before an impeachment vote could be taken.) There were no surprises; the vote was a party line vote with all but two Democrats voting in favor of impeachment. As it went to the Senate, the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell let it be known that he was working closely with the White House to thwart the Democrats’ “failed case.” This prompted Speaker Pelosi to hold up sending the articles of impeachment over to the Senate until she felt better about McConnell’s handling of the case. But while impeachment was happening there were two other important developments which left people wondering once again: what’s the deal with Trump and Russia and what’s the deal with Senator Lindsay Graham and Trump?

In a story that broke in theWashington Post a day after the impeachment vote 15 former government and administration officials claimed that Trump got his information about Ukraine from none other than Vladimir Putin According to these officials Trump has, for years, stubbornly stood by a debunked theory of the 2016 election that Ukraine interfered in the election to help Hillary Clinton. This belief has been traced to Russian intelligence sources and it has put him at odds with many of his top advisors and with the entire U.S. intelligence community. Sources told the Washington Post that they think Trump believes this because Vladimir Putin told him Ukraine, not Russia, was the guilty party.

Trump has had two meetings with Putin, both of which diverged from standard operating procedure regarding presidential meetings with heads of state. The first was in Hamburg, Germany, where Trump spoke with Putin privately with only an interpreter present. According to the Washington Post reporting,

“Trump also took steps to conceal the details of his formal meeting with Putin in Hamburg, taking the notes away from his interpreter and instructing her not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials…” 

And the second was in Helsinki, where after a private meeting with Putin Trump emerged to publicly side with Putin over his own intelligence officials, prompting howls of protest from senators in his own party.

The second story is that while the House was debating the articles of impeachment on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee voted out a bill called “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2019” (DASKA). The vote was 17 to 5—a bit of bi-partisan cooperation on impeachment day—with seven Republican Senators voting in favor of sending the bill out of committee.[1] The bill was introduced last February by President Trump’s big supporter in the Senate, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.). It reads like a comprehensive rejection of Trump’s foreign policy, from posing limits on American withdrawal from NATO to placing severe sanctions on Russian oligarchs and others who seek to inferfere in Democratic processes. Senator Lindsay Graham calls it the sanctions bill “from hell” and refers pointedly in it to “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s corruption.” When it passed out of the Senate Graham told reporters:

“If this bill becomes law, it will be the strongest statement yet by Congress that we are tired of the discord that (President Vladimir) Putin is sowing throughout the world and the threat that he poses to the neighborhood in which he resides.”

Meanwhile, the White House issued a 22-page letter outlining its objections to the bill which it called “unnecessary” and “ in need of significant changes.” If it gets to the floor of the Senate it is likely to follow in the footsteps of the 2017 Russian sanctions bill, which the president threatened to veto but ultimately could not because support in the Senate was so strong that his veto would have been easily overridden.

What makes this legislative saga so mysterious is that is it difficult to figure out if Graham is Trump’s friend or foe. During the 2016 presidential campaign Graham called Trump a “jackass,” more than once. When he suspended his own campaign he endorsed Florida Governor Jeb Bush. And then when Bush failed he endorsed Senator Ted Cruz saying “If we nominate Trump, we will be destroyed… and we will deserve it.” And, as if that wasn’t enough, he refused to even vote for Trump, voting for a third party candidate instead.

And then, miraculously, Senator Lindsay Graham became Trump’s best buddy. Time after time, from the hearings on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Mueller investigation to the impeachment, Graham has been 100 percent behind Trump—except when it comes to foreign policy. Graham seems to have taken upon himself the role of preventing the president he heaps praise on in public from doing things he deems harmful to United States foreign policy. On Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Russia Graham has been and out-and-out critic.

This has been the source of some speculation among political writers. Was Graham’s conversion pure politics? He’s up for re-election in 2020 in a state that went heavily for Trump. But his conversion seems deeper. A New York Times Magazine article called “How Lindsey Graham went from Trump Skeptic to Sidekick,” has Graham talking about the need to be relevant and proudly recounting his interventions with Trump. Which leads us to wonder if he really loves this president or if he represents a part of the Republican Party who, like the author Anonymous, feel that it is their patriotic duty to sooth the president’s ridiculous ego in public in order to protect the country.

In the meantime impeachment seems like a small part of a much bigger story: Trump and Russia.

[1] The Republican Senators voting for the bill were Marco Rubio (Fla.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Lindsay Graham (S.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Todd Young (Ind.), and Ted Cruz (Tex.)

Get daily updates from Brookings