WASHINGTON — After President Donald Trump made a direct request to Sen. Lindsey Graham to call former President Barack Obama to testify in hearings about the origins of the Russia investigation and the handling of Michael Flynn’s case, Graham expressed doubt about the idea.
“I am greatly concerned about the precedent that would be set by calling a former president for oversight,” Graham said in a statement released today by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
The South Carolina Republican said that the committee would hold hearings on the origins of the Russian election interference probe beginning in early June, including on the FBI’s investigation of Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Trump tweeted earlier in the day that Obama should be the first person called in hearings. He has repeatedly accused the former president of unjustly targeting his associates in what he calls “Obamagate,” without specifying what crime he thinks Obama committed.
“If I were a Senator or Congressman, the first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama. He knew EVERYTHING,” Trump said. “Do it @LindseyGrahamSC, just do it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talk!”
But Graham raised issues about the separation of powers and executive privilege, adding he is concerned about the precedent to call a former sitting president before the committee.
“I don’t think now’s the time for me to do that. I don’t know if that’s even possible. I have grave concerns about the role of executive privilege and all kinds of issues,” Graham told Politico in an interview on Thursday. “I understand President Trump’s frustration, but be careful what you wish for. Just be careful what you wish for.”
Flynn pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI in an interview about his communications with a Russian ambassador and agreed to cooperate with former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
The Justice Department announced last week it intended to drop its case against the retired Army general. Justice Department officials said the FBI’s January 2017 interview was “unjustified,” making Flynn’s statements irrelevant “even if true.”
Flynn and his new defense team sought to withdraw his guilty plea and have accused the FBI of entrapping him into making false statements, a claim the judge on the case has dismissed. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan still has to decide on the request to drop charges.
Graham said Thursday the first phase of Judiciary Committee hearings would focus on “the government’s decision to dismiss the Flynn case as well as an in-depth analysis of the unmasking requests made by Obama Administration officials against General Flynn.”
Foreign intelligence reports routinely conceal the identities of Americans when they show up during the legal surveillance of foreign entities, but certain officials can request the identity be “unmasked” if their purpose meets a “need to know” standard.
Earlier this week, acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell declassified a list of Obama administration officials who requested for the unmasking of Flynn’s identity when it was picked up in a foreign intelligence report. The list was given to the Justice Department, and Republican senators later released it to the public. The individuals named may have received Flynn’s identity, but the document declassified by Grenell does not confirm they saw the information, it says.
“Each individual was an authorized recipient of the original report and the unmasking was approved through (the National Security Agency’s) standard process, which includes a review of the justification for the request,” the document reads.
Trump allies have seized on the document’s release as evidence the Obama administration targeted Flynn, but intelligence experts have said the process of unmasking is fairly routine and there is no indication it was used illegally in this case, the Associated Press reported. Thousands of U.S. identities have been unmasked during Trump’s administration, according to a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from last month.
Graham said in his statement that “No president is above the law,” but recognized executive privilege issues that would arise by calling a former president to testify.
“To say we are living in unusual times is an understatement,” Graham said.
“We have the sitting president (Trump) accusing the former president (Obama) of being part of a treasonous conspiracy to undermine his presidency. We have the former president suggesting the current president is destroying the rule of law by dismissing the General Flynn case. All of this is occurring during a major pandemic.”
“As to the Judiciary Committee, both presidents are welcome to come before the committee and share their concerns about each other. If nothing else it would make for great television. However, I have great doubts about whether it would be wise for the country,” Graham said.