Rand Paul Accepts Award, Argues With Lindsey Graham Again

Their endless fight may be valuable to both of them.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee April 15, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Just a few hours after Lindsey Graham finished arguing (in absentia) with Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator walked to a podium not far from the Capitol, to receive an award. Paul was one of three recipients of The Constitution Project’s Constitutional Champion prize, recognized for his work on criminal justice reform, NSA reform, and the separation of powers. When he took the mic, Paul spent 12 minutes discussing crime, calling for an end to mandatory minimums and all sentencing disparities.

Then he swung back at Graham—in absentia, and not by name.

“One unapologetic senator, who I’ve had a few rounds with, said if you’re not talking to terrorists, why are you worried?” Paul said. “He goes on to say that he would censor the mail, if he could. Really? This senator goes on to say that if you’re an American citizen, and you ask for a lawyer, you just tell ‘im to shut up. Really? Have we stooped so low that that is our standard? If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear? It’s a long way from innocent until proven guilty.”

A quick ABC News report on the speech informed readers that Paul had taken an “apparent jab at Arizona Senator John McCain.” It was actually Graham who had said nobody should worry about metadata collection unless they talked to terrorists. It was Graham, in a hallway interview on the Hill, who said he was hypothetically all right with mail censorship. And it was Graham who got into a 2011 floor argument with Paul over whether “enemy combatants,” be they foreign or America, deserved phone calls to lawyers.

Paul’s endless argument with Graham might be valuable to both men. The South Carolina senator, who said this weekend that he is “91 percent” sure to run for president, never seems happier than when tag-teaming with McCain to criticize Paul. There is a simple, structural reason why this argument keeps exploding. Both Graham and McCain are Capitol Hill natives, ever-ready to stop in the hallway and talk to reporters, ever-readier to do a quick cable TV hit. If they know how to pass up a spat over foreign policy, they’ve never tried it.

By contrast, Paul is more selective about his interactions with the media. He no longer takes many questions in the hallways of Congress. He’ll appear on Fox News, but remains hesitant about MSNBC five years after Rachel Maddow dragged him into a quicksand interview about the Civil Rights Act. Paul is perfectly content telling primary-state voters of his civil-liberties fights; in Washington, his debating partners have endless opportunities to fire back and diminish him.

The award reception was more comfortable turf, even though Paul was literally surrounded by people he’d tangled with. Between speeches, Paul sat at a head table between Washington Post editor-in-chief Marty Baron and attorney Debo Adegbile, a 2014 nominee to run the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice whom Paul had voted against.

Paul made a joking reference to the Post’s coverage of him, which has included multiple stories by reporter David Fahrenthold about Paul’s policy evolution and the problems posed by his father, a former congressman from Texas. Then he praised the paper for running investigations of civil forfeiture policies, stories that are “changing minds” and getting bills passed. 

“We’ll lose a great asset to our country if we lose our newspapers,” said Paul.

Baron, who was at the gala to present an award to Twitter, joked about the friendship he’d built with Paul over “these past few moments.” Adegbile didn’t talk as much to Paul, telling Bloomberg that they’d just exchanged a “hello.” In 2014, after police unions attacked Adegbile’s defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the attorney became politically toxic. Paul joined a solid bloc of Republicans, and seven Democrats, in opposing the nomination. According to Adegbile, Paul didn’t even request a courtesy visit or interview before his vote. And after Adegpile introduced Pat Leahy, the Vermont senator spent a little time praising him.

“Debo, you’re a hero to my family,” said Leahy. “You defended the Constitution for all Americans even if it might cost you in your own career. You stuck up for the Constitution. I can’t think of anything I admire more.” Leahy paused. “Everybody here knows what I’m talking about. That’s why they all admire you.”

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