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These top GOP senators once claimed obstruction of justice should trigger impeachment

A new report alleges President Trump committed a crime, directing his personal attorney to lie to Congress.

UNITED STATES - Dec 04: Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA., and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY., talk as they walk to the U.S. Capitol from the Senate Subway on December 4, 2012. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - Dec 04: Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA., and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY., talk as they walk to the U.S. Capitol from the Senate Subway on December 4, 2012. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Two decades ago, these Republicans argued that a Democratic president obstructed justice and should be removed from office as a result.

Now they might face similar allegations against a president from their own party. But so far, Sens. Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, and Lindsey Graham have been among President Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders.

Allegations, first reported in BuzzFeed, that Trump directed his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a real estate deal bear some similarity to the charges that led to the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton in December 1998. (On Friday night, a spokesperson for the special counsel’s office issued a rare statement narrowly disputing aspects of BuzzFeed’s story about Cohen; BuzzFeed stood by the story.)

In 1998, Republicans argued that Clinton lied under oath and misled his aides about his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky — knowing that his employees would repeat this denial to a grand jury.

Although the House impeached Clinton, the Senate failed to convict him, and he went on to complete his second term. But both McConnell (R-KY) and Grassley (R-IA) voted to convict Clinton. Graham, then a member of the House, was one of the prosecutors.

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Graham, now a senator from South Carolina; McConnell, now the Senate majority leader; and Grassley, who has chaired the Judiciary Committee, all concluded in the late 1990s that obstruction of justice met the “high crime” threshold needed to impeach a president. Now, should the House vote to bring articles of impeachment against Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate might be tasked with deciding whether the same charges against a GOP president also meet that threshold.

Spokespeople for McConnell, Grassley, and Graham did not respond to ThinkProgress requests for comment Friday.

The three were not reticent 20 years ago.

“The president would seek to win at any cost,” said McConnell, while giving a closed-door impeachment statement as a senator in 1999. “If it meant lying to the American people. If it meant lying to his cabinet. If it meant lying to a federal grand jury. If it meant tampering with witnesses and obstructing justice.”

“We must decide whether perjury and obstruction of justice are high crimes and misdemeanors,” McConnell added. “Based on the Constitution, the law, and the clear Senate precedent, I conclude that these offenses are high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Graham gave an impassioned speech at the time saying that obstruction of justice is grounds for impeachment.

“If you determined that he committed the crime of perjury and you determined that he committed the crime of obstruction of justice, based on the precedent of the Senate, I think you would have a hard time saying under the situation of this case that, that’s not a high crime,” he said in 1999.

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“It’s never been hard to find out whether Bill Clinton committed perjury or whether he obstructed justice. That ain’t a hard one for me,” Graham said.

Grassley, a Senator at the time, said during a closed-door hearing, that Clinton misleading his aides about his sexual misconduct also rose to the level of a “serious crime.”

“I believe, based on the evidence before the Senate, that the president lied to these witnesses so they would repeat those lies before official court proceedings. That is obstruction of justice,” Grassley said.

As of Friday afternoon, senators largely remain silent on whether the same standard would apply to Trump. The president and his allies, including attorney Rudy Giuliani, denied the president compelled Cohen to perjure himself.

The president’s efforts to knock down this story include claiming that Cohen has a track record of lying and therefore can’t be trusted. The Buzzfeed report on Thursday night did not cite Cohen as a source.

Cohen admitted to investigators as part of his plea deal he had lied to Congress about the timing and nature of the real estate deal in Moscow.

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Mueller has been investigating Trump’s ties to Russia, Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and potentially Russian interference since Trump has taken office. Cohen is among the members of Trump’s inner circle already indicted and charged, and he has pleaded guilty to a campaign violations and of lying to Congress.

The new BuzzFeed report cites two law enforcement officials that allege Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the president’s involvement in a plan to build a  Trump Tower in Moscow. According to the report, Trump developed a plan with Cohen for the then-presidential candidate to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to give the real estate negotiations a boost.

This story was updated to include a statement from the special counsel’s office denying narrow aspects of BuzzFeed’s reporting.