Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
For those waiting for a profile in courage to emerge from Republicans in Congress after President Donald Trump was implicated by his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to eight criminal counts, stop holding your breath. Sen. Lindsey Graham, formerly one of Trump’s harshest critics, just paved the way for the post-midterm election fate of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, telling reporters on Capitol Hill that Trump is “entitled to an attorney general he has faith in.”
President Trump has not hidden his exasperation with Sessions, or his reason for being exasperated: Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Graham made these comments on the same day President Trump gave an interview to Ainsley Earhardt from Fox News with the sole purpose of once again obliterating Sessions, even attacking his commitment and his manhood: “He took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself.’ I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’”
He then went on to reiterate his long-standing view that he made a mistake in putting Sessions in the job. “Even my enemies say that Jeff Sessions should have told you that he was going to recuse himself and then you wouldn’t have put him in,” he said.
So why do Graham’s comments matter?
Because, along with Sens. John McCain, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake and a handful of others, Graham has been one of the last bastions of sanity and accountability in the Republican caucus. As recently as last summer, Graham said there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired Sessions.
He made that statement because firing Sessions would compromise the Mueller investigation by allowing Trump to nominate someone who would be more sympathetic to him. And because it could create a slippery slope that could lead to firing other officials in the Department of Justice who have oversight over the Russia investigation.
What is with the about face?
It is hard to say. There is an ongoing fear in the Republican Party about unsettling Trump’s loyal base. But Graham isn’t up for re-election until 2020. Does Trump or someone else have something on him? Hard to say.
But whatever the reason, the formerly outspoken critic of Trump’s disrespect for law enforcement and the rule of law, and cozy relationship with Russia, just retired from the service of sounding the alarm. And as a result it will be easier for other Republicans to also defend Trump’s desire to fire Sessions.
Trump supporters will often cite the long history of past presidents being free to pick their cabinet, and will point to his technical ability to fire anyone he chooses. Both of these things have been historically true, but those standards cannot be applied when a President appears to be firing someone in an effort to derail an investigation that involves his own election – to give the strong appearance, some might say, of obstruction justice.
No matter what Lindsey Graham has to say.