Lindsey Graham just gave Trump what he wanted all along: An investigation into Biden
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), photo by Gage Skidmore

Just as the House of Representatives is gathering a mountain of evidence implicating President Donald Trump in a scheme to bribe a foreign country into smearing former Vice President Joe Biden with a criminal investigation, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina announced Thursday that he'll do what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky didn't.

He has launched an inquiry as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee of the Bidens, Ukraine, and the oil company Burisma.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Graham requested records his department has related to Biden, his son Hunter, contacts with Ukrainian officials, and Burisma, whose board Hunter Biden served on. It's not clear what jurisdiction the Judiciary Committee has to look into these matters, and Graham cites no legislative purpose for the request. It will be interesting to see how compliant the Trump administration is with these demands, given that it has repeatedly obstructed Democrat-led probes and questioned the motivations behind similar asks.

But there's no mystery about what's going on here. Republicans are furious that Democrats are trying to hold Trump accountable for his Ukraine scheme, and they've been trying to use allegations that Biden was improperly involved in Ukraine as vice president to benefit his son, even though the evidence suggests the opposite and even though Republicans seemed uninterested in Biden's conduct at the time.

And not only does Graham's inquiry help distract from the impeachment and attempt to justify Trump's scheme by suggesting there really was something wrong with Biden's Ukraine conduct, but it gives the president what he wanted all along. He wanted Ukraine to investigate Biden, almost certainly because he expected to benefit by smearing a potential 2020 opponent as criminally corrupt, as he did successfully with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Ukraine wouldn't announce such an investigation, but Graham would.

On the one hand, this is how Trump should have gone about this effort all along. It's improper for a president to direct a criminal investigation of any individual, especially of a political opponent. It's even more egregious to ask a foreign government to criminally investigate a political opponent. But having his congressional allies investigate his opponents — while clearly objectionable if done for concocted or frivolous reasons — is within the bounds of normal politics. If a congressional investigation turned up incriminating information, it could refer it to the Justice Department — which would then be obligated to make an independent decision about whether a prosecutable crime had occurred.

And in fact, this is what Republicans did in the run-up to 2016. Perceiving Clinton as their likely enemy, they investigated the attack in Benghazi during her time at the State Department for years, hoping to uncover wrongdoing. They found little indication that she committed serious wrongdoing in the Benghazi episode, but they uncovered the email scandal, which they referred to DOJ and which became a criminal investigation. Famously, FBI Director James Comey announced that the probe concluded without finding a credible criminal case against her, but the investigation itself did enough damage to likely have cost her the 2016 election.

If Trump could have just employed this dirty but not explosive tactic against Biden, then he likely wouldn't be facing impeachment. Instead, he tried to induce Ukraine to go after Biden.

As events are unfolding now, there's something particularly tragic and pathetic about Graham's role.

During the 2016 campaign, he called Trump a "jackass," a "nut job," and a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot." And in 2015, when Biden's son Beau died, Graham had nothing but praise and affection for the vice president in an emotional interview.

"I called him after Beau died, and he basically said, 'Well, Beau was my soul'," Graham said with a shaky voice.

"He's the nicest person I've ever met in politics," Graham added. "He's as good a man as God has ever created."

He also said that Biden's speech at a party celebrating Graham's military service and his retirement included some of the most "incredibly heartfelt things that anybody could ever say to me."

And again, Graham said in 2015 of Trump: "He doesn't represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for. I've been in the airforce for 33 years, and I retired this June."

Now, for the sake of a man he called a "jackass," Graham has launched an inquiry against "as good a man as God has ever created."