Two years ago, in the early days of the Russia investigation, many Republican senators said collusion with a foreign government to influence an American election would be a betrayal of the United States. They didn’t believe Donald Trump had solicited campaign help from Russia. But they agreed that if he had, it was illegal and perhaps impeachable.
Today, some of those senators—notably, the committee chairmen responsible for protecting national security and the rule of law—have renounced that principle. They now assert, in the case of Ukraine, that collusion is OK.
Sen. James Risch of Idaho is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In June 2017, he interrogated then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Collusion with the Russians—or any other government, for that matter, when it comes to our elections—certainly would be improper and illegal,” Risch stipulated. He asked Sessions, “Would that be a fair statement?” Sessions replied, “Absolutely.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina expressed a similar view. At a press conference earlier this year, Graham, who is now the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, explained, “The big thing for me, guys, has always been: Did Trump work with the Russians? And I told him to his face, almost two years ago: ‘If you did, that’s it between me and you. And anything that follows, you deserve.’ I will say that about any politician of any party.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, espoused the same rule. The pivotal question, the Wisconsin senator insisted, was whether “members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.” The United States “should be investigating, ‘Was there collusion?’ ” said Johnson. In April, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked the senator whether he agreed with Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that “it’s OK for Republican campaign members, for Republican candidates, to welcome support from a foreign adversary, from Russia. Do you feel the same way? Would you welcome support from Russia in your campaign?” Johnson replied decisively, “No.”
Then, on July 25, Trump flagrantly crossed that line. In a phone call, Trump reminded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that his country, besieged and partially occupied by Russia, depended on U.S. military aid. “We do a lot for Ukraine,” said Trump. He complained that Ukraine wasn’t providing “reciprocal” help, and he asked Zelensky for “a favor”: to work with Giuliani and U.S. Attorney General William Barr on two investigations that could help Trump in 2020. Trump explicitly named former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who was, at that point, the Democrat most likely to face Trump in the general election. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution” of him, said Trump. “A lot of people want to find out about that. So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution. So if you can look into it … ”
The phone call was open-and-shut collusion. Trump had asked a foreign government to investigate his opponent, and the request was recorded in a White House transcript. When the transcript was released on Sept. 25, it put Republican senators in a bind. They had to choose between country and party, between abandoning Trump and defending collusion.
They chose to embrace collusion.
“I looked at the transcript,” Risch told an Idaho TV station. “This conversation that the president had with the head of Ukraine is a typical conversation.” The senator argued that Trump’s statements in the call “were absolutely normal, ordinary, regular things.” When a reporter asked Risch to address the incriminating parts of the transcript, the senator talked over him and shut the conversation down, insisting, “I saw nothing in the conversation that was inappropriate. We’re done here.”
Johnson, too, fell in line. After a meeting at the White House, at which he and other Republican lawmakers received the transcript and Trump’s talking points, the senator told reporters that the transcript showed nothing wrong with the call. “We all kind of looked at it and said, ‘There’s nothing here,’ ” said Johnson. The next day, he elaborated: “I never got any sense at all there was any kind of pressure [on Zelensky]. I just put the best construction on the call.” When a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked Johnson whether he was “troubled that—even absent a quid pro quo—the president would ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent of his,” Johnson dismissed the question. “Almost everybody who is saying that is just troubled that Donald Trump is president,” the senator scoffed.
Graham, like his colleagues, says the call is fine. On Sunday, in an interview with Margaret Brennan of CBS News, he defended it line by line. Graham described Trump’s pitch to Zelensky this way: “We are very generous to the Ukraine. Other countries, like Germany, should do more. And, oh, by the way, I have heard that this prosecutor that got fired, maybe he was a good guy, and they fired him because he was looking at Joe Biden’s son. Could you look into that?”
Graham’s paraphrase of the call was, by his own previous standard, collusion. But he defended Trump’s message to Zelensky, even when Brennan cited other incriminating parts of the call. She noted that Trump, in the transcript, “brings up the Biden family and the need for an investigation. He repeatedly lays that out. And also the aid package is mentioned.” She asked Graham, “You have no problem with any of this?” Graham replied, “I have zero problems with this phone call.” Brennan persisted: “Do you think it was ethical for the president to bring up Joe Biden?” Graham replied, “Yes, absolutely.”
The president thinks these declarations of innocence exonerate him. At the White House on Wednesday, he claimed that Graham privately told him the call was unimpeachable. “Lindsey Graham said, ‘I never knew you were that nice a person,’ ” Trump told reporters. “He said, ‘You never asked [Zelensky] for anything. You were really, really nice. … That was a perfect conversation.’ ”
It’s true that the chairman of the Judiciary Committee sees nothing wrong with the conversation. Nor do the chairmen of the committees on Homeland Security and Foreign Relations. But that doesn’t mean the conversation was perfect. It means that the Republican Party no longer believes it’s wrong to enlist the help of foreign governments to win an election. It has become the party of collusion.