crowd at the VFW John Myers post in Knoxville, Iowa, settled in to listen to the next of what was a seemingly endless stream of good, qualified Republican candidates seeking the presidential nomination in July 2015, prior to the Iowa caucuses. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham was in Knoxville for a campaign stop the day after Donald Trump gave out Graham’s cellphone number to the world.
The crowd of mostly veterans liked Graham and appreciated that he was one of their own, having served on active duty or as a reserve in the U.S. military for 30 years.
While Graham fell off the radar of Iowans during the caucuses, one thing happened at the small and now obscure event that keeps bugging me and that now seems to have major political implications.
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Graham was introduced to the crowd by a retired general from Iowa — someone whose name I should know but can’t remember. He told us how impressed he was with Graham’s prominence on the world stage by sharing that while they were being driven from the prior campaign event to ours, Graham took a phone call from Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.
I was surprised. I have always assumed that conversations between world leaders and members of Congress happened at the request of the administration and that they didn’t happen during a car ride across the Iowa countryside by a senator running for president with guests and staffers in the car. Perhaps the conversation was part of Graham’s role on a congressional committee, and appropriate. Israel is, of course, an important ally of ours. I don’t know.
But my gut told me it was wrong. I could see the conversation only as potentially undermining the Obama administration’s official policy toward Israel. After all, Graham was then in the opposition party and seeking the nomination for president.
Let’s assume that Graham’s behavior is consistent with that of other members of Congress. If that’s true, it means that they’re talking willy-nilly with world leaders, their staffs and representatives. All the time. One can also assume that these conversations are not benign. They are all negotiations of one sort or another.
But are there diplomatic rules of engagement? Graham was talking with the head of state of an ally. Is there a list of which countries a member of Congress can’t speak with?
And when would such a conversation constitute treason? The U.S. code is vague: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason.”
“Adheres” to their enemies? I don’t see how this clause could be more vague.
Our treason code was most recently revised in 1948 and in 1994, back when the world was still round and our current technological advances unanticipated.
Enter former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, under investigation for ostensibly inappropriate or illegal conversations and other activities with Russians. While he is now under investigation for more than phone conversations, they were what triggered the first investigation.
How are Michael Flynn’s conversations under investigation, while Graham’s are apparently acceptable? To me, the area between Graham’s conversation with Netanyahu and Flynn’s with the Russian ambassador is a very bright shade of gray. If Graham’s conversation wasn’t anomalous and was appropriate, toss in all of the conversations other members of Congress are having with other world leaders — legitimate or not — and we have a very tangled web.
While Democrats are gloating as the Trump ties to Russia are unraveled, there are bigger questions at hand that cut both ways, irrespective of party. Who is talking to whom, why and to what end? And when, as a member of the opposition party, are your conversations undermining not only the efforts of the current administration, but our country as well?
Robert Leonard is an anthropologist and hosts a public affairs program for KNIA/KRLS radio in Knoxville/Pella, Iowa.