WASHINGTON – Sen. Lindsey Graham, a staunch ally of the president, is the target of an ethics complaint after his controversial phone call with a key election official in Georgia over how the state counts ballots.
Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger accused Graham earlier this week of pressuring him to find ways to exclude or invalidate legally cast absentee ballots and reverse Trump’s loss in the state, an accusation the South Carolina Republican called “ridiculous.”
Graham said he had also spoken with Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and was briefed about the process in Nevada, both swing states that helped Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump for the White House.
The senator’s contact with other states over election counting efforts came as Trump and his campaign have lodged multiple lawsuits over baseless voter fraud allegations in a longshot attempt to overturn the election results.
A complaint filed Wednesday to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics asks the panel to investigate Graham’s phone call with Raffensperger, whether Graham suggested not counting all legal votes and whether he had threatened election officials, who are in the midst of a recount, with a Senate investigation. The complaint was filed by Walter Shaub, a former top ethics watchdog for the federal government under President Barack Obama; Richard Painter, the top ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush; and Claire Finkelstein, who heads the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law.
“If these allegations are true, Senator Graham’s conduct constitutes an abuse of office and conduct unbecoming of a senator,” the complaint states.
Congressional ethics probes are notorious for their length and often do not result in any disciplinary actions. Complaints can also be filed by anyone for any reason and do not indicate wrongdoing. Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, dismissed the complaint in a statement and pointed to previous remarks from the authors of the complaint criticizing Graham and Trump numerous times over the years.
“These are long-time vocal critics of both Senator Graham and the Trump Administration,” Bishop said. “Their complaint should be viewed in that light.”
But questions have been raised about Graham’s contacts with election officials in other states. He has donated $500,000 to the president’s legal efforts, where Trump and his campaign have argued baseless accusations of voter fraud in multiple states where Trump lost to Biden.
“Bottom line, we have a senator calling a key election official in the middle of an election as they’re counting the vote – in a state he does not even represent – and apparently making suggestions to toss ballots,” Painter said in an interview. “I find that to be clear interference in the electoral process and it’s troublesome if he’s doing it in order to help Trump.”
Graham has continued to defend himself amid criticism. Asked in what capacity he was making these calls, Graham said “as a United States senator who is worried about the integrity of the election process nationally, when it comes to vote by mail.”
He told reporters this week he was stepping in to check on other states because the future of the country hangs in the balance. He denied claims he was pressuring officials to exclude ballots but was rather attempting to understand the method for which different states examine ballots.
His explanation differed from how Raffensperger saw the conversation with Graham. He told The Washington Post Graham questioned whether he had the power to reject certain absentee ballots, something Raffensperger said he interpreted as a suggestion to toss out legally cast votes.
Graham asked him whether political bias might have caused elections workers to accept ballots with non-matching signatures, Raffensperger said, and asked whether workers could throw out all absentee ballots in counties with higher rates of non-matching signatures. Graham has said he called merely to better understand how verifying signatures worked and said the suggestion that he was attempting to pressure Raffensperger to toss ballots was “ridiculous.”
Fellow lawmakers largely haven’t weighed in on the controversy but were interested in Graham’s motivations in the calls.
Asked about Graham’s efforts, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., didn’t weigh in on whether the contacts were appropriate. He instead outlined that each state runs their own elections and highlighted the lack of foreign interference in this cycle.
Fellow Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said he didn’t see anything wrong with Graham contacting the officials.
“I mean every senator can talk to anybody who will pick up the phone and talk to them and any secretary of state should be willing to talk to any senator who calls them in my view,” he explained. “I didn’t see it as troublesome.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said officials in these states shouldn’t “give a hoot what a United States senator says to you.”
“I have no idea what Sen. Graham said but there is no reason any secretary of state should feel intimidated,” Blumenthal said, pointing back to his days as an attorney general and getting similar calls from politicians.
“I’m not going to pass judgment on what he is doing because I don’t know exactly what he is doing,” Blumenthal said of Graham’s conversations with state officials. “It really depends upon what he said, but I’m going to certainly presume he was careful to avoid any violation of law. But the judgment should be made by people who know exactly what he said.”
Fellow Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island similarly did not pass judgement on Graham but said it came down to the rationale behind the calls.
“If all he’s trying to do is get information, people are entitled to do that,” Whitehouse said. “If he’s trying to influence the way they perform their duty, that becomes a bit problematic. And without knowing what was said, I can’t tell which is which.”