Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, speaks to members of the media about Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP

When Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, died, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, lost one of his dear friends and his political and moral compass. For months, as McCain’s health declined, Graham sank further into the quicksand of conspiracy theories — e.g., making a criminal referral regarding dossier author Christopher Steele — and cringeworthy obsequiousness to President Donald Trump. Whether it was congratulating Trump for beating him at golf or giving cover for Trump’s attacks on the FBI, Graham, many surmised, was seeking a Cabinet post. Perhaps, or perhaps he has simply been adrift without the Arizona senator.

Graham reached a new low last week, when he supported the idea of canning Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in. … I think there will come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice.” That was a far cry from his declaration in July 2017 that there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired Sessions to get a stranglehold on the Russia investigation.

On Tuesday, Graham sounded defensive. “You have to replace him with somebody who is highly qualified and will commit to the Senate to allow [special counsel Robert Mueller] to do his job,” Graham said. “Nobody is going to take Jeff’s place that doesn’t commit to the Senate and the country as a whole that Mueller will be allowed to finish his job without political interference.”

But what if the person later changes his mind? What if he aims to restrict Mueller so that he cannot do his job? Surely Graham must understand that anyone Trump would pick for the AG spot couldn’t be trusted to support the Russia investigation.

Even worse, Graham spouted the Trump team’s talking point that only collusion matters. “At the end of the day, if there is collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, that will be it for me,” Graham said. “Anything else will be just noise.” Obstruction of justice, witness tampering, defrauding the voters and/or any financial crimes will simply be noise for Graham, I fear.

For a former Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps officer in the U.S. Air Force, this is a sorry display of constitutional ignorance. “High crimes & Misdemeanors,” as we learned in Watergate, includes things such as obstruction of justice. Indeed, in 1999, Graham lectured his fellow lawmakers in the Clinton impeachment matter. “You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job (as president) in this constitutional republic if this body determines your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role because impeachment is not about punishment,” he said. “Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”

Graham would do well to listen to the words of freshman Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, who spoke about how to honor McCain. “The best way to do that … is looking at ourselves,” he said. “Particularly those of us who are in public office, and trying to conduct ourselves with more dignity, more integrity and more charity toward people on the other side: our political opponents.”

Now is no time for Graham to read from the Trump hymnal or encourage the president’s recklessness. It’s a time for Graham and others to consider the threat Trump poses to democracy and the rule of law, to pass legislation protecting Mueller and Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein and to put the president on notice that he should not attempt to pardon his cronies or family members.

Above all, it is time to make clear that Graham was right in 1999: “Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office” — whether the president has colluded with Russians, tried to derail a lawful investigation, committed other crimes or otherwise abused his powers (e.g., intervening in the discussion of relocating the FBI building to protect his hotel located across the street; taking official action to enrich himself or his children).

Let’s hope that in eulogizing his friend, Graham will regain the intellectual and moral balance he has lost over the past year.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion from a center-right perspective for The Washington Post. Follow her @JRubinBlogger.

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