Over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Glenn Thrush, Jo Becker and Danny Hakim, Tap Dancing With Trump: Lindsey Graham's Quest For Relevance about what they call "one of the unlikeliest partnerships in politics." The classic video up top-- Graham in 2015 on CNN addressing "the Trump supporters"--is the most infamous of the Lindsey Graham clips analyzing Señor Trumpanzee.
"He's a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot. He doesn't represent my party. He doesn't represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for... I don't think he has a cue about anything... He's empowering radical Islam... You know how to make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell."
Thrush and his co-writers set up their interview for the readers by noting that "Graham's moment, it seemed, came on the evening of Jan. 6. With crews still cleaning up the blood and broken glass left by the mob that just hours before had stormed the Capitol, he took the Senate floor to declare, 'Count me out' and 'Enough is enough.'" He was clearly referring to Trumpism, right? He told the Times reporters that "he did not mean what almost everybody else thought he meant. 'That was taken as, "I’m out, count me out," that somehow, you know, that I’m done with the president,' he said. 'No! What I was trying to say to my colleagues and to the country was, "This process has come to a conclusion." The president had access to the courts. He was able to make his case to state legislators through hearings. He was disappointed he fell short. It didn’t work out. It was over for me.'" The relationship with Trump, though, went on.
Graham’s reaffirmed devotion has come to represent something more remarkable: his party’s headlong march into the far reaches of Trumpism. That the senator is making regular Palm Beach pilgrimages as supplicant to an exiled former president who inspired the Capitol attack and continues to undermine democratic norms underscores how fully his party has departed from the traditional conservative ideologies of politicians like Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney and Graham’s close friend John McCain.
To critics of Graham, and of Trump, that enabling comes at enormous cost. It can be seen, for example, in Republicans’ efforts to torpedo the investigations of the Capitol riot and in the way the party, with much of its base in thrall to Trump’s stolen-election lie, is enacting a wave of vote-suppressing legislation in battleground states.
Graham, of course, describes his role in far less apocalyptic terms. Even as he proclaims-- from under the hard gaze of a half-dozen photos of McCain-- that the Republican Party is now “the Trump party,” even as he goes on Fox to declare that the party can’t “move forward” without the man who twice lost the popular vote, Mr. Graham casts himself as a singular force for moderation and sanity.
He alone can fix the former president, he believes, and make him a unifying figure for Republicans to take back both houses of Congress next year and beyond. To that end, he says, he is determined to steer Mr. Trump away from a dangerous obsession with 2020.
“What I say to him is, ‘Do you want January the 6th to be your political obituary?’” he said. “‘Because if you don’t get over it, it’s going to be.’”
Many of Mr. Graham’s old friends on both sides of the aisle-- and he still does not lack for them-- grudgingly accepted as political exigency his original turn to Trump. His deviations from conservative orthodoxy, they understood, had left him precariously mistrusted back home. Now, though, they fear he has reached a point of no return.
“Trump is terrible for the country, he’s terrible for the Republican Party and, as far as I’m concerned, he’s terrible for Lindsey,” said Mark Salter, a close McCain friend who was the ghostwriter for Mr. Graham’s autobiography.
“Lindsey is playing high-risk politics,” said Senator Dick Durbin, a liberal Democrat from Illinois who considers Graham a friend. “He is pinning the hopes of the Republican Party on a very unstable person.”
What makes Lindsey run?
Over the last four years, pundits and political analysts have endlessly teased the question. Yet what emerges from interviews with more than 60 people close to him, and with the senator himself, is a narrative less of transformation than of gyration-- of an infinitely adaptable operator seeking validation in the proximity to power. It is that yearning for relevance, rooted in what he and others described as a childhood of privation and loss, that makes Graham’s story more than just a case study of political survival in the age of Trump.
Raised just this side of poverty and left parentless early, Graham, 66, has from his school days chosen to ally himself with protective figures he calls “alpha dogs,” men more powerful than himself-- disparate, even antagonistic, figures like Trump and McCain, the onetime prisoner of war so famously disparaged by Trump. Indeed, toward the end of his life, McCain privately remarked that his friend was drawn to the president for the affirmation.
“To be part of a football team, you don’t have to be the quarterback, right?” Graham said in the interview. “I mean, there’s a value in being part of something.”
It was in that role, amid unrelenting pressure from Trump and his sons, that Graham called Georgia’s top elections official in November to inquire about the vote tally in the state, which Trump lost by nearly 12,000. That call is now part of a criminal investigation of the Trump camp’s actions in Georgia.
Yet nothing Graham does or says seems enough to satisfy the Trumps. That has left the self-described conciliator struggling to generate good will on both sides of the political divide.
In mid-November, as he was publicly urging Trump to keep up the election fight, Graham made a previously unreported phone call to President-elect Joseph Biden, to revive a friendship damaged by his call for a special prosecutor to investigate the overseas business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter.
It was short, and not especially sweet, according to three people with direct knowledge of the exchange. Graham told Biden that, in attacking Hunter, he had done only the bare minimum to satisfy Trump supporters back home. (A Graham spokesman disputed that account.)
Biden, who viewed Graham’s statement as an unforgivable attack on his family responded by saying he would work with any Republican, but dismissed the approach as Graham trying to have it both ways, two people close to the president said.
“Lindsey’s been a personal disappointment,” Biden said a few days later, “because I was a personal friend of his.”
Absurdly, the Times team says nothing about the open secret everyone in Washington knows-- that lifelong bachelor Lindsey Graham is a closet case who has built his entire life around a lie. Lying about something that profound is a slippery slope and it has turned Graham into a caricature of a man. It is impossible to do a realistic portrait of him, as Thrush, Becker and Danny Hakim attempted to do, without mentioning the life and career built on a lie. But they tried.
After the election, when Graham began his incessant campaign of sucking up to Trump, it "bewildered some Trump aides, but not people who knew him. 'He has an abiding need to be in the room, no matter what the cost,' said Hollis Felkel, a veteran South Carolina Republican political consultant.
"Graham," they reported, "said he was there to sell the president on a more hawkish foreign policy at a time when Trump was vowing quick withdrawals from Afghanistan. He was surprised, he said, how friendly the president was. Indeed, to hear Graham talk about his interactions with Trump is to be struck by how much he seems to relish them. 'He came in and he was very gracious, like he’s trying to sell me a condo, showed me around,' Graham recalled. Graham said he reciprocated by praising his host’s political skills and pledging to support him when he could, especially on judicial nominations. He soon followed up with a flurry of phone conversations on politics, gossip and golf. That led to the prize Graham wanted from the start: an invitation to Trump’s club in Virginia.
Trump had his own motivations for making nice. He was an interloper who craved legitimacy, and found the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, unapproachable and humorless. Graham, according to Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist at the time, wasn’t a “stiff,” like so many others in Congress.
“The senator closest to Trump was Lindsey Graham, and it’s not even a question,” Mr. Bannon said. “Have you met Lindsey Graham? I like him, and I think he’s the worst.”
Like McCain, Trump was drawn to Graham’s ambidextrous, pragmatic politics-- and his strategic amiability.
“People apparently found the combination of my slight stature and gabby nature comical,” Graham wrote in his 2015 memoir, referring to a coping strategy learned in childhood. “I was expected to entertain folks. And I knew the more audacious I was the more entertaining I would be.”
Trump also told his staff that he preferred the company of people he had turned-- former enemies who had come to see that he was actually a good guy they could respect.
...Trump aides were noticing a curious dynamic: It wasn’t just that the president absolved Graham for the Obamacare debacle; the senator was one of the few people who could get away with taking on Trump and his temper.
The most common source of flare-ups was Afghanistan. During one golf outing, the two men got into a screaming match after Graham said he would rather deal with a bomb killing civilians in Kabul “than in Times Square.”
Trump barked an expletive, shouted, “You guys have been wrong for 20 years,” and stomped off, according to a person who witnessed the exchange.
A few minutes later, they were chatting amiably as if nothing had happened, the person said.
Some of the president’s top advisers were growing annoyed by Graham’s pesky omnipresence-- finagling flights on Air Force One, showing up at the West Wing on little notice. “Sometimes he’d just like to sit with the president in the dining room off the Oval at the end of the day,” a former senior White House official said.
...McCain’s death in August 2018 had been a profound loss for Graham, and during the interview in his office, he nearly broke down describing the hours he spent at his friend’s hospital bedside, holding his hand, during those final days in Arizona.
Yet he also acknowledged that the dissolution of the partnership had freed him to look after his own political interests, which entailed cozying up to the right-wing populists who increasingly dominated his party in South Carolina.
“I jokingly refer to Senator Graham as Senator Graham 1.0 and the Senator Graham 2.0 who came along during the Trump years, the 2.0 being the preferred upgrade,” said Nate Leupp, chairman of the Greenville County Republicans and one of several party leaders in South Carolina who said they had long been wary of the senator’s “maverick alliances.”
Graham’s 2016 presidential primary bid-- a bit of a lark, intended to vault him to the national stage as a solo act-- had been a humiliating reminder of how vulnerable he was at home: When he dropped out in December 2015, he was polling in single digits in South Carolina.
His McCain-esque positions on immigration and trade, he admits, were part of the problem. “I adore John McCain. Yeah, he’s done more to mentor me and help me than any single person in politics,” Graham said. “But having said that, I’m the senator from South Carolina.”
Perhaps the most sensitive issue for Graham was his bipartisan record on judicial appointments.
Graham had long argued that presidents deserved to have their judicial nominees confirmed, and in 2010, he voted for Mr. Obama’s second Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. It came at a cost: Anti-abortion protesters in South Carolina hanged him in effigy, and when he ran for re-election in 2014, six primary opponents popped up, each hammering him for being too liberal on the courts.
Graham has played down the episode, but it clearly scarred him.
“I have triplets, and I would probably do anything, including breaking the law, to protect them. He’s got a Senate seat,” Mick Mulvaney, the former acting White House chief of staff, said of Graham on a recent podcast.
So when a second Supreme Court vacancy opened up in early 2016, Graham signed on to Mr. McConnell’s refusal to allow a Senate vote on the nomination of Merrick Garland, on the grounds that it came too close to the November election.
And several people described a similar determination to prove his conservative bona fides in what was probably Graham’s most memorable public performance in the service of Trump: his outraged defense of Brett Kavanaugh, whom he had known for a decade, against sexual misconduct allegations during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings in September 2018.
“You’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics!” Graham said.
Yet if Graham’s performance won him kudos from skeptics back home, it did not translate into safety ahead of his re-election campaign. The election became a referendum, of sorts, on Graham’s shotgun conversion to Trumpism.
In mid-2019, his eventual Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, began raising tens of millions of dollars from donors nationwide. And after a mid-September 2020 poll showed the candidates in a dead heat, Harrison raised $1 million in 24 hours, part of a $57 million quarter, the richest for any Senate candidate in history.
“I’m getting overwhelmed,” Graham lamented to Sean Hannity on Fox. “LindseyGraham.com. Help me.”
Behind the scenes, McConnell tapped his national fund-raising network, channeling $10 million to Graham’s cause, and two Ohio-based dark-money groups chipped in $4.4 million.
As for Trump, he made one appearance with Graham in South Carolina and cut one campaign ad. But he did let Graham raise money off his brand, and, in the end, the senator raked in about $111 million, almost nine times what he had raised in 2014 and nearly as much as Harrison.
Graham won by 10 points.
Even with a renewed six-year lease on public life, Mr. Graham hasn’t stopped tap dancing.
In the days following the election, he scrambled to stay on Trump’s good side, publicly urging him not to concede until he had exhausted all his legal challenges and listening calmly on late-night phone calls as the president raged about a stolen election. He even wrote a $500,000 check to aid Trump’s legal defense.
But privately he was already reaching out to Biden and counseling Trump to ramp down his rhetoric. And he steadfastly refused to appear at news conferences with Trump’s legal team or repeat their false claims-- which annoyed the president and infuriated his son Donald Jr., always a Graham skeptic, retweeting stories with a “#whereslindsey” hashtag when he felt the senator was not standing up for his father.
The biggest source of residual anger inside the Trump bubble was Graham’s refusal, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to acquiesce to White House demands for hearings into Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
Graham said all the right things on Fox, and hinted he would get to the bottom of the matter. But his staff advised him that it was impossible to tell reality from disinformation, so he delayed and deliberated, happily deferring to the homeland security committee.
He had a better relationship with the president’s middle son, Eric, yet he, too, was growing frustrated that the senator would not even retweet claims of election fraud. At a family meeting, he fumed that Graham had always been “weak” and would pay a price because his father would be the most powerful Republican for years to come, according to a political aide who was within earshot. Trump was working the senator, too, according to people familiar with the exchanges.
Graham said that what happened next had nothing to do with the pressure bearing down on him. But on Nov. 13, he called Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, the first of a series of interventions Trump and his allies were to make into the tallying of the results in Georgia.
Raffensperger has said that Graham asked if there was a legal way, using the state courts, to toss out all mail-in votes from counties with high rates of questionable signatures. And a Raffensperger aide who was on the call said in an interview that Graham’s goal was getting as many ballots thrown out as possible.
...Then came Jan. 6, and his presumed declaration of independence.
Graham, in fact, began softening his tone almost immediately, following a tongue-lashing from the president and a confrontation, two days after the Capitol assault, with dozens of Trump supporters at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, chanting: “Traitor! Traitor!”
By Jan. 13, when Mr. Trump was impeached on charges of inciting the riot, Mr. Graham was back on board, offering advice on how to quell a possible revolt by Republican senators. What followed, in the eyes of many Senate colleagues, was a frenzied overcorrection.
Graham has become an ever-more-frequent face on Fox, denying the existence of systemic racism and decrying federal aid to Black farmers as “reparations.” He posted a video of himself firing an AR-15 bought as protection from marauding “gangs” and forcefully backed Ms. Cheney’s expulsion from House leadership. He has embraced the culture-war grandstanding that he and Mr. McCain mocked when they were a team-- recently saying he would “go to war” against students at the University of Notre Dame for trying to block a Chick-fil-A on campus over the anti-L.G.B.T.-rights politics of its executives.
Yet there are signs Mr. Graham may be playing an inside-outside game. He has placed himself at the center of a monthslong effort to draft bipartisan police-reform legislation and recently met with the Rev. Al Sharpton to hear him out on the bill. He voted for Mr. Biden’s infrastructure bill (and got censured for doing so by the Republican Party in Aiken County, SC). And when he tested positive for Covid-19 after being inoculated, he made a point of telling vaccine deniers in his own party to get their shots.
During his near-weekly golfing trips to Mar-a-Lago, he said, he is still trying to persuade Mr. Trump to “take it down a notch.” He remains convinced he can get him to play by the rules, and not the other way around.
Many of the people who have known him longest are not so sure.
From his office in Walhalla, just up the road from Central, Graham’s old law partner, Brandt, has been thinking about something the senator told him during a visit eight or nine years ago.
“Larry, you are too honest to survive in Washington,” Graham said. “Eighty-five percent of the people there would sell their mothers to keep their jobs.”
Brandt ran into Graham at a local restaurant in 2017, as the senator was beginning to court Trump. Brandt took him to task, reminding him of their “85 percent” conversation. “I said, ‘Lindsey, don’t sell your mother,’” he recalled.
Lindsey Graham would say anything to keep his job as a senator, which is also his identity. I want to contrast him with another military vet, a front line former marine and current candidate for the open Missouri Senate seat, Lucas Kunce. This is what Kunce told his followers about the war in Afghanistan Graham has been so enamored of for some many decades:
For those of us who were sent to Afghanistan, we knew this was inevitable. But for 19 years, politicians in both parties lied to America. They lied about the mission. They lied about the so-called progress. They spent trillions sending people like me to fight and die on a doomed mission to build up someone else's country because they thought it made them look strong. And today, that strongman facade has crumbled, only to reveal two decades of failed political and military leadership.
Some politicians are suggesting now is not the time to have a frank conversation. That's not surprising. They've been saying that for twenty years, all the while sending more of us to die and wasting more money on efforts abroad when they could have been investing here at home.
These politicians spent over $2 trillion on a war based on lies. And yet, right here at home, we have war zones of our own. Just drive through any small town in Missouri, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The sad truth is that while massive multinational corporations waged economic warfare on our communities, our bought-and-paid-for government sent us off fighting and dying in a war no one asked for.
I was there. Today was inevitable.
If we're going to have people like Lindsey Graham in the Senate, we need people like Lucas Kunce as a counter-weight. If you agree with his analysis of Afghanistan and would like to help him get elected, please consider contributing to his campaign here. There are plenty, on both sides of the aisle, like Graham, rooting for war. But far too few like Kunce.