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The Unpardonable Sins of Lindsey Graham

The South Carolina senator seems determined to go down in history as the ultimate Trump dead-ender.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Some Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill still aren’t quite willing to admit what was already obvious: President-elect Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. “You’re going to play gotcha questions with me?” Colorado Senator Cory Gardner told reporters when asked if he thought Biden was the president-elect. “You guys, just come on. I’m not going to play your gotcha questions. I’m not going to play your games. I’m tired of it.”

But a growing number of top Republicans appear willing to accede to reality. Politico noted this week that even as GOP senators accept President Donald Trump’s irregular legal warfare against the result, they acknowledge that it will likely fail to prevent Biden from securing a victory in the Electoral College. Texas Senator John Cornyn said the next president “will probably be Joe Biden.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, with either wry understatement or supine meekness, said a Biden victory was “the highest likelihood at this point” from the “preliminary results.”

And then there’s Lindsey Graham. As I’ve previously noted, the senior senator from South Carolina is remarkably honest about what drives his zealous personal support for Trump: an unquenchable thirst to be close to power, no matter what form it takes. “I have never been called this much by a president in my life,” he once told The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich with what the éminence grise of Beltway profilers described as “a mixture of amazement and amusement, with perhaps a dash of awe.” Now that hunger appears to have placed him on the opposite side of American democracy.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told The Washington Post on Monday that Graham questioned the state’s signature-verification requirements, insinuating that Democratic-aligned poll workers could have applied a more lenient standard. Then he asked whether the secretary of state “had the power to toss all mail ballots in counties found to have higher rates of non-matching signatures,” according to the Post. (He does not.) Taken together, Raffensperger thought Graham was asking him to throw out legally valid votes in large numbers. Depending on the targeted counties, such a strategy could tip Georgia away from Biden and into Trump’s column.

When questioned by reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Graham denied that he had inappropriately pressured Raffensperger to throw out valid votes. He also reportedly said he had spoken with the secretaries of state in Arizona and Nevada as well. This was almost immediately disputed by those parties. “I have not spoken with Senator Lindsey Graham or any other members of Congress regarding the 2020 general election in Nevada or my role in the postelection certification process,” Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske told reporters. “This is false,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said on Twitter. “I have not spoken with Lindsey Graham.” Cegavske is a Republican; Hobbs is a Democrat.

The reaction to Graham’s alleged comments came quickly from colleagues in Congress. “If all he’s trying to do is get information, people are entitled to do that,” Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told reporters on Tuesday. “If he’s trying to influence the way they perform their duty, that becomes a bit problematic.” Graham suggested that he was merely trying to obtain information in exchanges with reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, but Raffensperger said he drew a different conclusion. “It’s just an implication that, ‘Look hard and see how many ballots you can throw out,’” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when asked about Graham’s denials.

Graham wouldn’t be the only one in Trumpworld looking for ways to throw out enough votes to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Rudy Giuliani spent most of Tuesday in a court hearing in Pennsylvania, where he asked a federal judge to throw out hundreds of thousands of absentee votes in Democratic strongholds based on unproven and histrionic claims of mass voter fraud. Giuliani’s slapdash effort is unlikely to succeed for multiple reasons, up to and including his inability to understand basic election law.

At one point, he even appeared ignorant of strict scrutiny, a basic and fundamental concept for a practicing lawyer to know when arguing a case on Fourteenth Amendment grounds. Imagine if you were lying in an operating room, about to go under general anesthesia, and heard your surgeon ask, “Hey, what are all these knives for?” Now you are in the general orbit of whatever planet on which the former New York mayor happens to be residing.

Other efforts to undermine the election results are more ominous. On Tuesday evening, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers in Michigan deadlocked on a vote to certify the results of the November election after the board’s two GOP members raised unfounded claims of voter fraud in Detroit. One member said she would be willing to certify the results for the rest of the county, whose residents are mostly white, but not for Detroit, where 80 percent of residents are Black. Certifying Wayne County’s results now falls to the state board of canvassers, where seats are also evenly divided on party lines. The county board’s move was met with praise from a member of Trump’s legal team, who described the effort to disenfranchise a majority-Black city as a “win for [Donald Trump].” (The Board of Canvassers later reversed its decision and reached a compromise after a public backlash.)

It’s still unlikely that any of these efforts will change the results of the presidential race, let alone allow Trump to serve a second term. But the Republican Party is now going beyond the scope of soothing the president’s psychic wounds and toward seeking mass disenfranchisement on a scale unseen in American elections since the end of Jim Crow. Those who supported this effort or merely stood by while it happened should never be forgiven for their role in it. Of them, Lindsey Graham is uniquely beyond absolution.

This article has been updated to account for the latest developments.