Senator Lindsey Graham, once among Donald Trump’s harshest critics, is set to lead the charge to defend him in the court of public opinion as Democrats make the case for impeachment.
The Republican senator from South Carolina has rejected the allegation that Trump betrayed America’s national security interests by pressing the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate political rival Joe Biden days after freezing some military aid to the country.
Graham and other allies of the president have sought to fight back by arguing that a whistleblower who raised the alarm was not on the call between Trump and Zelenskiy but based his complaint on officials’ recollections of it.
“In America you can’t even get a parking ticket based on hearsay testimony,” Graham tweeted on Saturday. “But you can impeach a president? I certainly hope not.”
The senator played golf with Trump, as well as professionals Gary Player and Annika Sörenstam, at the president’s club in Sterling, Virginia on Saturday morning, according to a White House pool report. It seemed likely Trump and Graham had plenty of time to strategise how to reclaim the political narrative.
Graham has changed his tune on impeachment. In 1998-99, as a member of the House of Representatives, he helped manage the impeachment of Democratic president Bill Clinton, insisting the process was “about restoring honor and integrity to the office”.
But Graham distinguished himself in Trump’s eyes a year ago with his furious defence of Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination to the supreme court was almost derailed by allegations of sexual assault.
On Friday the senator sent a fundraising email to supporters that said: “I can still remember the exact moment it started, one year ago today … I spoke from the heart against the false and uncorroborated accusations leveled against Brett Kavanaugh for political purposes.”
Graham added: “My remarks on the Democrats’ despicable treatment of Justice Kavanaugh had struck a powerful chord with folks who enthusiastically supported President Trump’s pick to our nation’s highest court.”
The email contained a photo of a smiling Graham with a distressed protester in the background, and the caption: “Stand with me against the left’s angry mobs!”
Graham, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, will appear on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, along with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a key figure in the impeachment inquiry given his attempts to pressure Ukraine.
The New York Post’s PageSix reported that Graham was overheard on a flight coordinating talking points with the White House.
“We’re told that the South Carolina pol was on a JetBlue flight from Washington DC, to Charleston and was chatting loudly with ‘Jared’ – presumably White House adviser Jared Kushner – before takeoff,” it said.
“It was a ‘full-blown, loud conversation’ according to an airborne spy. ‘His phone rang and he answered, “Hey, Jared!” He was … saying he’s going to be on Face the Nation on Sunday. He said, “Listen – this is what I’m going to lay out,”’ we’re told.”
The report added that Graham was overheard saying: “This is Kavanaugh on steroids! This is hearsay – and this person has bias.”
Graham and others might find the Ukraine case tougher than Kavanaugh or the Mueller report, which summed up special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference, links between Trump and Moscow and possible obstruction of justice by the president.
David Brock, a political activist and founder of the progressive watchdog Media Matters for America, told the Guardian: “Their playbook is very predictable. It’s one we’ve seen before. We’re seeing it play out now. But I do think that they’re dealing with a weaker hand this time and at least so far they’re struggling to find a counter-narrative they would like to tell.
“I don’t think they have it yet and so it feels like they’re throwing a lot at the wall to see what sticks but there’s not as much of a coordinated counter-offensive as there has been in the past.
“And that’s because they’re overwhelmed with the reality of what this complaint says and it’s very hard to spin your way out of it. They’re certainly trying but I wonder about the effectiveness of it.”
Trump continued to punch back on Saturday, branding Democrats “savages”. He tweeted: “Can you imagine if these Do Nothing Democrat Savages … had a Republican party who would have done to Obama what the Do Nothings are doing to me. Oh well, maybe next time!”
Graham may find it difficult to target Biden, an old friend. And his bellicose defence of Trump represents a striking u-turn. In May 2016 the former Republican primary candidate and close friend of late senator John McCain wrote on Twitter: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.”
House Democrats are determined to move fast. On Friday they issued subpoenas demanding documents from secretary of state Mike Pompeo and scheduling legal depositions for other state officials.
On Saturday, Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, expressed concern over a Washington Post report that the White House restricted access to the transcript of a 2017 Oval Office meeting in which Trump told two senior Russian officials he was unconcerned about interference in the 2016 election because the US did the same in other countries.
If true, Schumer said, the reports “are extremely harmful to both our national security and the integrity of our elections. It’s one of the most disturbing things we’ve learned yet.”
He added: “The White House should immediately provide the congressional intelligence committees with all the records of that meeting so we can get to the bottom of it.”
Trump tried to defend himself by sharing an old report in which his then national security adviser, HR McMaster, described conversation as “wholly appropriate”.
The president wrote: “Thank you to General McMaster. Just more Fake News!”