At one time, Lindsey Graham found Donald Trump to be a detestable humanoid, an unstable and incompetent candidate whose election would rot the United States and the Republican Party. He called Trump a “kook” and a “complete idiot” who’s “crazy” and “unfit for office.” He said Republicans would get “destroyed” if they nominated Trump, whom Graham described as a “race-baiting, xenophobic bigot” whose foreign policy was gibberish. In the wake of the Access Hollywood video, he even hinted at looming impeachment.
Fast forward two years, though, and you’ll find Graham going on cable news to say, literally, that Trump is not a kook and not a race-baiting, xenophobic bigot. The immigration plan Graham once called stupid and illegal now has his full support, including his advocacy last week for Trump declaring a national emergency so he can build his border wall.
No never-Trumper has bowed to the MAGA cult as thoroughly and inexplicably as Lindsey Graham. For Democrats who once clung (naïvely) to Graham—along with friend and mentor Senator John McCain—as a sign of hope for an internal GOP resistance, his descent has been tragic and, to many, suspicious. After all, how did he change so quickly, so completely? And why, after all of it, hasn’t Graham gotten anything he wants from Trump? On immigration, foreign policy, campaign finance, climate change, human rights, decency and decorum in public office—all of which Graham has devoted himself to in the past—Trump has given nothing. And still Graham grovels.
Those with a conspiratorial bent might pinpoint—and many have—one fateful day on Trump’s Florida golf course. Some speculate—and to be honest, not entirely without reason—about blackmail, either personal or perhaps related to illicit campaign donations. Still others suspect, without evidence, that it has something to do with Russia.
But maybe it’s more mundane. Maybe it’s simply that Trump, through nothing more than sheer bullying, has in the course of two years revealed the once-outspoken, hard-nosed Senator—who as a kid hammed it up in a cowboy costume to draw laughs from patrons in his dad’s South Carolina bar—for the person he is: a soft-shoeing, soft-white smile in a suit, with no ideas, and—without John McCain around—no strong personality to play “wingman” to anymore. No one, that is, except Donald Trump.
Here, then, is the real story of the tragic, stupid, self-inflicted fall of Lindsey Graham.
Graham’s reversal has been one of the most extreme in recent memory. No Republican was more outspoken than Graham during the election. He said Republicans had gone “bat shit crazy” to nominate Trump, and that “the Republican Party has been conned.” He called Trump a “jackass.”
“You know how to make America great?” Graham once tweeted. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”
And after the Access Hollywood tape dropped, Graham asked the country to “name one sports team, university, publicly-held company, etc. that would accept a person like this as their standard bearer.” About 20 years earlier, however, Graham said about Bill Clinton’s impeachment that, “Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.” But even though there’s now a credibly-accused, self-admitting sexual assaulter and amoral serial adulterer in the White House, Graham stays clammed.
But we need to look beyond what Graham has said about Trump’s temperament, intellect, and basic decency. The real story with Graham can be found in where he’s caved to Trump, where he hasn’t, and what he’s gotten out of both strategies—which is, of course, absolutely nothing.
Let’s start with immigration.
Rewind the clock to 2014 and you’ll find Graham as one member of the Senate “Gang of Eight” that drafted a bipartisan immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for all undocumented Americans currently in the United States. That bill passed the Senate with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, but failed in the obstinate Republican-controlled House.
You’ll then find Graham saying in 2015 on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “I think the wall Donald Trump is building is between us and Hispanics.” That same summer he called the border wall “stupid” and “illegal.” Six days after Trump was sworn in Graham said, “The border wall is probably not a smart investment,” and tweeted, “Simply put, any policy proposal which drives up costs of Corona, tequila, or margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad.” (Al Franken once called Graham the “funniest Republican in the Senate,” though that itself might also be a joke.) Days later Graham said, “We’re not going to build a wall in places it shouldn’t go,” and called right-wing nincompoop and senior White House adviser Stephen Miller an “outlier,” adding that “as long as [Miller] is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere.”
How quickly doth spin the tire swing of time in the backyard breeze.
In October 2018 Graham supported Trump’s radical right-wing proposal to revoke birthright citizenship, maintaining in the face of his earlier pride for a bipartisan bill that included a path to citizenship that he’d “always” been a proponent of the right-wing idea. And last week Graham advocated on Twitter for Trump’s wall, even throwing his support behind invoking emergency powers to build one. (Graham understands the dangerous precedent this would set, as well as the high potential Trump will abuse his powers if given the chance.) Graham also said that even if Trump’s border wall were “a metaphor for border security”—as he recently put it—that if Trump gave in to Democrats on the issue it would be “the end of his presidency.” And to make sure Trump heard him loud and clear, Graham told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Trump should declare a national emergency if Democrats don’t include the wall in a deal.
(Trump’s wall, of course, could take years to build, hardly a solution to an “emergency.”)
On the foreign policy front (Graham once said Trump “gets his foreign policy from watching television—the Cartoon Network”), Graham opposed Trump’s first “travel” (read: Muslim) ban, saying he feared the executive order would be a “self-inflicted wound” in the fight against terrorism. Weeks later, however, Graham released a statement in support of the second version of the ban (which would be found unconstitutional). The next day he visited Trump in the White House, which has been observed to be the turning point in their relationship.
Then you’ve got the Russia investigation. Graham, like his close friend Senator John McCain (who called Russian President Vladimir Putin “an evil man [who] is intent on evil deeds”), is a lifelong, hard-line Kremlin opponent, and has described Putin as “a thug.” Graham—a former Air Force lawyer—has also consistently defended Special Counsel Robert Mueller, warning Trump in March 2018 that firing Mueller would, in a familiar phrase, be the “end of his presidency.” Graham, who now heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, has repeatedly pushed for legislation that would protect Mueller from executive branch interference, and earlier this month did so again. In the summer of 2018 Graham said a month before the 2016 election that he found Trump’s “schizophrenia” about Putin “disturbing,” and in the wake of Trump’s bizarrely obsequious joint press conference with Putin in Helsinki last year he affirmed that Russian election interference wasn’t “fake news.” He reiterated that point this week, saying the Mueller investigation is not a “witch hunt.” (Graham’s unwavering anti-Russia rhetoric seems to contradict another blackmail theory, that the Russians have dirt on Graham, perhaps related to NRA donations—which after all wouldn’t apply to Graham in a unique way.)
But Graham also plays the other side. Earlier this month the Senator, who styles himself a longtime champion of law and order and counterterrorism, went on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace and attacked the FBI for opening a counterintelligence investigation into Donald Trump. “I find it astonishing,” Graham said, purloining the word Wallace used moments before, “and to me, it tells me a lot about the people running the FBI, McCabe and that crowd.”
(Six months before the FBI opened this investigation, Graham’s best friend John McCain personally passed a copy of the Steele dossier to the FBI.)
Graham went on:
“If this really did happen, Congress needs to know about it, and what I want to do is make sure, how could the FBI do that? What kind of checks and balances are there?”
First, bullshit. The FBI apparently briefed congressional leadership almost immediately after the bureau opened the investigation. Also, congressional checks and balances don’t apply to the FBI’s decisions about what to investigate. In this case the bureau heads—led by Republicans—took this extraordinary step because they needed to know if Trump was wittingly or unwittingly helping Russia, not because they preordained his guilt. It’s unclear how Graham can square his newfound skepticism with the blind faith he continues to—as he has for years—put in the bureau’s other counterintelligence efforts.
Graham went so far in this interview as to attack the New York Times in the same breath: “Number one, that story came from somebody who leaked it with an agenda, so I’d like to know who leaked it… and I, for one, don’t trust what I read in The New York Times.” Graham understands as well as anyone the importance of a free and independent press to our democracy—and especially the Times—and it’s “astonishing” he chose to engage in Trump’s both-sides subterfuge.
Perhaps more astonishing, though, are the lengths Graham’s taken. In July 2017 Graham said that if Trump attempted to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions there would be “hell to pay.” But when Trump said a little over a year later that he was indeed going to fire Sessions, Graham took the president’s side. When faced on Fox News with his 2017 self, Graham explained—as John McCain lay dying—that he changed his mind because the president “deserves to have an attorney general he has faith in.” This pleased Trump, who posted a tweet quoting Graham’s remarks: “Every President deserves an Attorney General they have confidence in. I believe every President has a right to their Cabinet, these are not lifetime appointments. You serve at the pleasure of the President.”
It should go without saying that President Trump didn’t have faith in Sessions at the time of Graham’s initial warning, either. That’s why he wanted to fire him.
Just last week Graham asked Sessions’ prospective replacement, William Barr, to promise to investigate Mueller’s team for anti-Trump bias. Barr replied, “Yes, Mr. Chairman.” And this Tuesday, Graham, in a seemingly parodic statement, vowed to renew investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails and the FBI’s fairness in obtaining a FISA warrant on Trump campaign aide and suspected Russian agent Carter Page.
This all suggests, strongly, that Graham is playing both sides on both sides: He either secretly hopes to de-legitimize the investigation he wants to be perceived as protecting, or he wants earnestly to protect the investigation but stay in good standing with Trump. But we can take this one step further: We can’t ignore the fact that Trump hasn’t said anything negative about Putin, and has actively tried to sabotage all congressional efforts to push back against the Kremlin for its election attack. Graham grovels, sure, he tows the Trump line, but he gets nothing out of it. Which, of course, brings us to the obvious next question.
It’s hard to square the two Lindsey Grahams. The humanist in me is tempted to believe his hypocrisy sickens him more than it sickens us, because given his close friendship with the now-dead McCain it must wrack him at an emotional depth I can’t fathom. And considering some cryptic statements in his eulogies for McCain, this might be true. But of course it also might not be. People are complicated, and so is government, and we could come up with any number of explanations for Graham’s behavior, from a strategic sell-out to the blackest of blackmail to unadulterated wet-noodle incompetence.
First, let’s get the sex out of the way. Speculation about Graham’s sexuality has dogged him for years. During his 2002 Senate campaign, South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Dick Harpootlian said Graham was “a little too light in the loafers to fill Strom Thurmond’s shoes.” His political opponents have often raised the specter, calling him “ambiguously gay” and “closeted.” And in 2017 Mike Huckabee told Laura Ingraham, “I sometimes wonder what uniform [Graham] puts on each morning when goes out to the field to play… and I’m not just talking about the partisan uniform.” (Graham allegedly dated Ingraham in the 1990s. Any romantic relationship, however, would have been fleeting: Not long after the rumors started, Ingraham said she was “regrettably” single.)
The allegations have been so persistent that Graham has on more than one occasion felt it necessary to address them publicly. “Don’t believe anything anybody tells you about my Air Force exploits,” Graham once told the Washington Post about his time in the military, a tour that took him to Rome and Paris. “I was very heterosexual, that’s all you need to know.” In 2010 he told the New York Times, “I know it’s really gonna upset a lot of gay men. I’m sure hundreds of ’em are gonna be jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge – but I ain’t available. I ain’t gay. Sorry.” When comedian Chelsea Handler took a swipe at him in October 2018, Graham told TMZ, “To the extent that it matters, I’m not gay.”
And of course it doesn’t matter. At least not to most. But Graham represents South Carolina, a deeply red and religious state where in a recent bill state legislators called gay marriage a “parody.” This has led some to speculate Trump might be blackmailing the Senator, who is up for re-election in 2020. (It’s important to note the actual facts of Graham’s sexuality could be irrelevant: Even the rumor, if used in an especially cutting or public way, might damage his campaign. This is especially true today, when Russian social media campaigns can turn information into politically lethal weapons, regardless of that information’s veracity.) But again, in this day and age Graham’s hypothetical outing might backfire on his opponents, because Graham could spin himself into something of a Republican hero. To that end, this week MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle speculated on-air and without evidence that Trump must have “something pretty extreme” on Graham. That same week Jon Cooper—the openly gay chair of the Democratic Coalition and unreliable source extraordinaire—claimed on Twitter that a nameless Republican source told him that Graham’s sexuality wouldn’t be strong enough for blackmail, so Trump must know of some “serious sexual kink.”
And indeed, many people have pinpointed what they see as a suspicious, sudden turn that smacks of blackmail.
Two months after Graham took Trump to task over his response to the deadly Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Graham tweeted this:
This is almost certainly a lie. According to an LPGA pro, Trump “cheats like hell” at golf. And look, it’s nothing short of absurd to see the one-time virulent never-Trumper spew unprompted such an unexpected mushy encomium, and one popular theory is that on the course that day Trump presented Graham with the possibility of blackmail if he didn’t get in line. The tweets, these theorists would point out, coincide suspiciously with Graham’s bizarrely sudden all-out sell-out, as outlined in detail above.
Except it doesn’t. The golf theory has holes.
Extreme as Graham’s reversal on Trump has been, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to explain it. Because even if the perpetually single Graham is married only to his politics, it’s also clear he isn’t committed to them.
A former Graham senior campaign official explained Graham’s behavior like this: “I don’t think it is surprising that Senator Graham has tried to work with the President, even though he may disagree with him. He tried to work with Obama as well.”
This last part is certainly accurate. For instance, in 2010—when most congressional Republicans had committed to blocking all of Barack Obama’s legislation a priori—Graham tried to negotiate bipartisan legislation on climate change and later, as noted above, immigration reform. The South Carolina legislature—which like many conservative redoubts at the time had fallen to the Tea Party—repeatedly censured Graham for reaching out to the left. To the Senator’s credit, though, he didn’t relent, even at the risk of being primaried from the Tea Party right in 2014. (He won handily.)
That fear, however, might threaten Graham even more today. In July 2017—the same month the ACA repeal Graham pushed for failed—former South Carolina Democrat and geomyidian cable news opportunist Harlan Hill, 28, upon collating the results of a non-scientific poll conducted through his own Twitter account, announced he might muster a challenge to Graham’s Senate seat from the MAGA right. Hill dropped the idea, but, absurd as it was, the threat might have unnerved Graham. Over the next few months the Senator seemed to toss out the final pebbles of decency he had left in his pocket and went full Trump, perhaps believing the key to his future success lay in a tragically compromised present.
Still, Graham gave us a heads-up well before then. In the same interview that Graham said, “I think Donald Trump has gone to places where very few people have gone, and I’m not going with him,” he also said, “When this election’s over, I’m going to help the next president, whoever he or she may be, and I’m going to try to rebuild a Republican Party that can actually win the White House.”
What we see here, then, is that Graham sees Trump not as a Republican, but truly as an opposition figure, probably even more so than Obama or Hillary Clinton. (This itself, when you think about it, is a fairly radical idea.) Unlike most of his GOP colleagues, though, Graham has a true record of bipartisan cooperation. You can understand, then, how Graham might frame his work with Trump as a similar calling—though now it demands something like tripartisan cooperation.
It took Graham a little while to find his role in a Trump presidency, but in March 2017, two months after the inauguration, Graham had lunch with the President, and that’s when everything seems to have changed.
According to reports, Graham developed a fondness for Trump at that lunch. Steve Largent, a former NFL player who became friends with Graham when they were House freshmen, said, “I think Lindsey likes the president a lot more than he thought he would.” He added, “I think Lindsey feels a little bit like the adult in the room, speaking with the president. I’m saying this—Lindsey has never said this to me—but there’s something about, I’m not going to say innocence, but the president’s affability as well as his naïveté that Lindsey is drawn to.” And, according to sources cited in a New York Magazine profile, this was the moment Graham made “a strategic decision to publicly flatter Trump.” He put the plan in motion that day, posting a self-deprecating tweet about how well the meeting went.
The next month, Graham took to Trump’s favorite cable news show—Fox & Friends—to gush about, of all things, Trump’s foreign policy, which only months before Graham dismissed as “gibberish.” He said on the show, “I am like the happiest dude in America right now. We have got a president and a national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.” He also made his allegiance to Trump quite clear: “I am all in.”
This olympic feat of obeisance obviously predates that golf course chat.
Though Graham might really have been drawn to Trump’s naïveté, his “strategic decision” seems in hindsight at least equally callow. After all, unlike many of his Republican colleagues in Congress, Graham hasn’t been a complete flunkie, and as outlined above, he and Trump have clashed a number of times on a number of issues—and therein lies the greater tragedy. Graham, despite the vomitous fawning and betrayal of his best friend, hasn’t gotten anything he wants out of Trump, most specifically including immigration policy and Trump’s refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Washington Post journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi. (To that end, human rights was an area of deep concern for John McCain, so it’s notable Graham didn’t have his name on the McCain Human Rights Commission the Senate created after his death.) But it’s instructive and intellectually honest to remember this, because it contradicts the image many on the left have of Graham as nothing more than Trump’s caddy. Maybe he’s something else.
Despite how it looks, Graham hasn’t sold Trump all the real estate in his soul. This suggests, rather strongly, that the root of Graham’s hypocrisy is more nuanced than blackmail alone could explain. It could be that Lindsey Graham simply cares more about some things than others.
This is no defense of the man: Almost all of his positions—the ones he adopted from Trump as well as the few to which as a water-boy for the religious right he’s held fast (his repugnant defense of Brett Kavanaugh needed no arm-twisting)—are ridiculous and awful. It’s quite likely that Graham is willing to trade some things—such as caving in on the obscene wall—for Trump’s favor on others (presumably Saudi Arabia). This strategy, as mentioned before, hasn’t worked so far for Graham. Still, we’ve got to acknowledge the contradictions.
The one space Graham still seems principled—despite his Fox & Friends flattery—is foreign policy. A notoriously irresponsible war hawk who has supported military intervention in Iran and alarmingly North Korea, Graham hasn’t relented, and has even tried to turn the radically isolationist Trump into an interventionist. He hasn’t had success. Trump decided precipitously last month—without advising any military officials—to withdraw all U.S. military advisers from Syria, claiming falsely and irresponsibly that the U.S. had defeated ISIS there. Graham leveled the most devastating criticism possible at Trump, calling the move an “Obama-like mistake.” It didn’t take long for Trump to go after Graham personally. Graham, however, hasn’t budged.
He has also, however, tried to dissuade Trump from sending troops to Venezuela. According to Axios, Graham told the president, “You need to go slow on that, that could be problematic.” Trump reportedly replied as I probably would have, “Well, I’m surprised, you want to invade everybody.”
But Graham explained to Trump, “I don’t want to invade everybody, I only want to use the military when our national security interests are threatened.” It’s still unclear what Trump will do, because he’s an ignorant, purely transactional psychopath, but he’s turning to Graham for advice, and Graham is, believe it or not, giving him the right advice.
Or take Saudi Arabia’s gruesome murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi last October. Graham, who called the evidence against the Saudi Crown Prince a “smoking saw,” made a clear break with Trump, who still hasn’t condemned the Crown Prince for the murder nor taken any punitive steps against the royal court. (He did sanction individual Saudis associated with the murder.) But Graham, in step with an overwhelming majority of lawmakers from both parties, pushed for serious sanctions on Saudi Arabia—which include stopping all U.S. weapons shipments—and even hinted at a need for regime change.
This was a rare moment where Graham acted on his words. In December he pushed the Senate to pass two-nonbinding resolutions aimed at Saudi Arabia, including an invocation of the War Powers Act challenging the president’s right to carry out the Saudi-backed War in Yemen. Those resolutions, however, must now travel through a new Democrat-led House of Representatives, and if they pass, Trump will almost certainly meet them with a veto, the overcoming of which would require a two-thirds majority in both houses. Graham will soon have to double down.
Will he buckle? After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed Senators on the murder last November, Graham said the administration was being “willfully blind” to the evidence against the Saudis. But Pompeo recently met in Saudi Arabia with the Crown Prince, and afterwards said the two countries shared the goal of “de-escalating” the War in Yemen. This might suggest that Graham, though silent on the matter since the Democrats took over House leadership, has influenced the administration’s position. Pompeo’s language, however, is patronizingly vague. Also worth noting, Pompeo—who in the weeks after the murder flew to Saudi Arabia to hold a secret meeting with the royal court—was photographed on his most recent trip sharing chuckles with the Crown Prince. Graham hasn’t yet weighed in on the meeting, and given his new hard-line pro-Trump position on the shutdown it’s fair to assume he might instead double down on two-facing it.
But Graham, unlike so very very very many never-Trump disappointments, has taken real moral stands. One month after that supposedly fateful round of golf—when the Senator supposedly went full Trump—the President retweeted Islamophobic videos posted by Jayda Fransen, a racist, far-right Britain First whack-a-doodle. Graham came down firmly: “The one thing I’ve learned after 42 trips to the region is that the antidote to terrorism is not racism and religious bigotry,” he said. “When you embrace religious bigotry, when you say that all Muslims are the same, then you’re undercutting our effort to win the war.”
Similarly, take Charlottesville, which presents its own contradictions. A few weeks after McCain cast his moral “thumbs-down” vote against the Obamacare repeal, a group of Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, where one of them murdered counter-protester Heather Heyer with a car. Graham criticized Trump’s both-sides remarks in the wake of that attack as a virtual defense of terrorism, and said Trump should “come down like a hammer on white supremacists.”
But Trump paid attention. At a rally two days later, the President called Graham, who had just spent months advocating for Trump’s healthcare bill, “publicity seeking” and a “disgusting” liar. Graham took to Twitter, reminding the President that white supremacists and literal Nazis approved of what he was doing, and that “history is watching us all.” However, when Trump responded that “publicity seeking Lindsey Graham” was lying about the president’s false equivalency, Graham responded with a two-tweet thread. The first said, “Mr. President, like most I seek to move our nation, my state, and our party forward—toward the light—not back to the darkness.” The second, however—and delivered literally one minute later—said, “Your tweet honoring Miss Heyer was very nice and appropriate. Well done.”
Later that month Trump called for a troop surge in Afghanistan, which seemed to patch things up nicely. Two months later they went golfing.
And here we see something much more tragic than blackmail: We see Lindsey Graham reduced to a pimp, conceding to himself that flattery is the only means available to him if he wants to negotiate anything with this amoral, pig-eyed lunatic. How deeply, how thoroughly rotten Lindsey must feel to have groveled for this gloating homunculus for going on two years now with nothing to show for it save the only thing the President seems to be able to do: A few supportive tweets—one of which sought to drive a wedge between him and his best friend.
Probably the best explanation for what’s happened to Lindsey Graham is that Trump accurately sensed his weakness: That Graham isn’t himself a leader, but rather someone who needs a leader. Without John McCain around to support him and show him how to live (Graham once said he was McCain’s “wingman”), Graham is nothing more than—to co-opt the nickname McCain gave him—a little jerk. Everything else, I believe, unfolds from there.
It’s commonly understood that no one in the world has had more influence on Graham than John McCain. Graham is first to admit it: “I never did anything politically of consequence without John,” he said the week McCain died. “I mean all of the big stuff, campaign finance, climate change, Iraq, you name it. I was by John’s side. I was his wingman.”
Graham’s friendship with McCain grew from—what else—Bill Clinton’s impeachment, when Graham was still a fresh-faced representative on Capitol Hill. Here’s how McCain described the inception of their friendship in 2017: “Congressman Graham, on the most solemn occasion [by this he means Clinton’s impeachment – ed.], said, ‘You know, where I come from, any man calling a woman at 2 a.m. is up to no good.’ I knew right then that Lindsey Graham was a guy I wanted to spend time with.”
And how ironic, and how perfectly resonant with America generally, that they united around the impropriety of Bill Clinton, but the obscenity of Donald Trump split them apart.
Graham, for his part, loved McCain, saying tearfully in a joint appearance with his friend on CNN in March 2017—before McCain was diagnosed with the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him—that “he is loyal to his friends. He loves his country. And if he has to stand up to his party for his country, so be it. He would die for his country. I love him to death.” And in July 2017, weeks before McCain cast the fatal vote against the GOP’s Obamacare repeal, it was Graham who, upon speaking with McCain on the phone, broke the news of McCain’s brain cancer to Senate colleagues—during a meeting about health care, no less. “This disease has never had a more worthy opponent,” he told reporters.
Any parallel between Trump and McCain—with himself as the obverse—seems to have gone lost on Graham.
Trump—who lied so he wouldn’t have to die for his country—feared McCain and attacked him regularly, perhaps most reprehensibly in the early days of his 2016 campaign when he said, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Graham then called Trump a “jackass” on TV, to which Trump responded like any reasonable adult and gave out Graham’s cell phone number.
Graham took it personally. He said on CNN he wouldn’t vote for Trump, even though he would get behind any of the other dozen-plus GOP nominees, many of whom, such as Rand Paul, Graham found himself diametrically opposed to. (Graham claims to have voted for Evan McMullin.) He explained in part by citing Trump’s treatment of McCain:
Quite frankly, [Trump] lost me when he said my friend John McCain was a loser because he was captured as a POW…. I think Donald Trump has gone to places where very few people have gone, and I’m not going with him.”
But over the next two years, that’s exactly what Graham did. So though the depth of Graham’s friendship with McCain can’t be understated, the depth of his betrayal is the reciprocal.
It’s instructive to remember McCain and Graham didn’t hold hands through every pass. Perhaps most notably was the GOP’s 2017 Obamacare debacle, where Graham and McCain cast different votes, with McCain’s famous thumbs-down scrapping that effort. A couple months later, when Graham introduced another round of healthcare legislation in a last-ditch repeal effort, McCain said he would vote against it, effectively extinguishing all hope.
And here we see Trump try to drive a wedge, tweeting that McCain had “let his best friend L.G. down!” With McCain having just returned to a hero’s welcome in D.C., Graham went high, saying McCain “is one of my dearest friends in the world, and John McCain can do whatever damn he wants to, he’s earned that right.”
Trump, who relies almost solely on the instincts of a bully, must have sensed Graham’s reliance on McCain, because he never let up on Graham. The next month the two went golfing, and a couple months later, when McCain’s illness again forced him to leave D.C., they went golfing again—coincidentally just after Graham chastised Trump for retweeting the Islamophobic videos.
Graham’s will was so feeble, that by May 2018 it was already too late. That month, as McCain—for all anyone knew—lay dying, Trump attacked his healthcare vote. That same month a White House staffer dismissed McCain as “irrelevant; he’s dying, anyway.” But Graham, who called the White House aide’s remark “disgusting,” had just a few weeks before tweeted his endorsement for Trump in 2020, and he stopped short of asking the President to apologize.
When McCain died that August, Graham said, “America and Freedom have lost one of her greatest champions…. And I’ve lost one of my dearest friends and mentor.” The McCain family famously didn’t invite President Trump to the funeral, and Graham said the way Trump handled McCain’s death was “disturbing” and “pisses him off to no end.” Graham, however, for reasons unknown, finagled invitations for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
That funeral was seen as an hours-long rebuke of Trumpism, though no one mentioned his name. When Graham spoke, though, wrought with emotion, he seemed to rebuke not Trump, but himself. He told the mourners McCain had playfully given him the nickname “Little Jerk,” adding pointedly, “You’ve all got your names. And you earned them like I did.” And when Graham eulogized McCain on the Senate floor, he said dolefully, “It’s going to be a lonely journey for me for a while. Don’t look to me to replace this man.”
In September 2017, when McCain came out against Graham’s healthcare bill, the South Carolina Senator responded equitably, tweeting, “My friendship with @SenJohnMcCain is not based on how he votes but respect for how he’s lived his life and the person he is.”
The admirable qualities on display there, however, are the same ones forfeited to Trump: Graham doesn’t at all respect how the racist, corrupt, draft-dodging Trump has lived his life, and despite disavowing, sorta, his past insults to Trump (saying last January, “No, I don’t think he’s a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot — as president”), Graham doesn’t respect the person Trump is.
In other words, Graham believes that in approaching Trump as an opposition figure, he can separate the person from the policy and work with the man. But his unforgivable mistake—the miscalculation that led him to immolate his soul—is his failure to accept that in Trumpism, person and policy are one.
Look, in the same July 2016 interview where he simultaneously said he wouldn’t vote for Trump and made the likelihood of a sell-out quite clear, Graham said, “I think the best days of the Republican Party lie ahead if we can reunite the people who vote for Trump and the people who don’t vote for Trump are still Republicans.” At some point, though, Graham realized resistance and Republicanism were irreconcilable, and over the course of the Trump presidency his affable idealism has turned into knives-out cynicism. When in June 2018 Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, who had recently announced his retirement, gave a speech in which he said, accurately, that the GOP doesn’t want to do anything that might upset Trump, Graham reportedly told Corker, “You don’t care about the Republican Party because you’re leaving.”
It’s hard not to imagine the driving force behind this attack wasn’t fealty or ideology, but envy and impotence: Graham has groveled to get what he wants, and though he might hate himself for it, he knows he won’t stop.
“If you don’t like me working with President Trump to make the world a better place,” Graham once said, “I don’t give a shit.” At this point you could point out that Graham’s support of some of the President’s policies—such as his 180 flip on the wall—doesn’t necessarily mean Graham has abandoned his other positions, but you’d be wrong. Graham’s other positions were anti-Trump, and vehemently so. On top of abandoning those principles, Graham is also fine with praising Trump in hopes he can get the president behind his pet issues, but he’s only lately realizing he’s misplaced his faith. Trump’s corruption, crudity, and incompetence are fatal to practically any political effort, but beyond that—and most tragic of all—it’s all in vain. When the Washington Post reached out to Graham’s office last August to ask what the Senator had achieved in the Trump era, the office “listed items—Supreme Court appointments, the fight against Islamic State and increased defense spending—that were all Trump priorities independent of Graham.”
Donald Trump is the one who doesn’t give a shit.
Which brings us to the nut of the thing. When Graham explained his decision not to vote for Trump in 2016, he said confidently, “Trumpism is not conservatism, and that will be obvious to many people.” Over the following two years, however, Graham has conceded in the most despicable way that he was wrong. Not only has Trumpism become conservatism, but Graham himself has become a uniting force. The tragedy of Lindsey Graham, though outrageous, isn’t exceptional. It’s the tragedy of the Republican Party, writ small. He’s still dressed up as a cowboy in his dad’s bar, a make-believe maverick dancing for a few laughs, firing a couple plastic six-shooters up at the ceiling.