Lindsey Graham Unmasked

If you didn’t already hate Lindsey Graham, you will now:

Monday, February 25, 2019

by Heather Digby Parton

This profile of Lindsay Graham in the New York Times Magazine doesn’t fully answer all the questions people have about why he’s decided to ecstatically lick Trump’s boots and attack Democrats like a feral dog but it does exlpain some of it. It starts off with a political appearance in South Carolina where he gives Trump a run for his money in sheer, right wing viciousness. Then it wonders how he got there:

What did happen to Lindsey Graham? I raised the question directly to him the following afternoon in his Senate office in Washington. Graham was collapsed behind a cluttered desk, sipping a Coke Zero and complaining of exhaustion.

“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.

I asked what “this” was. “ ‘This,’ ” Graham said, “is to try to be relevant.” Politics, he explained, was the art of what works and what brings desired outcomes. “I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he told me.

An outcome of particular interest to Graham, at the moment, is getting re-elected to a fourth Senate term in South Carolina, where Trump owns commanding approval numbers, especially among the hard-core Republicans who in the past questioned Graham’s devotion to their conservative cause. Sure, Graham allowed, you might emphasize some things more than others when you’re trying to appeal to the party base. “You just showcase your issues, right?” he said. During his last re-election campaign, in 2014, Graham asserted his base bona fides by railing against President Barack Obama’s White House “scumbags” and warning that “the world is literally about to blow up.” He has always been conservative, he emphasized. “But in our business, you’re not defined by the 80 percent agreement. You’re defined by the 20 percent” that the base might object to. (His relatively liberal position on immigration once led Rush Limbaugh to dub him “Lindsey Grahamnesty.”)

Graham reminded me that when McCain was facing re-election in 2010, he turned himself into “the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate.” That was the race in which McCain claimed that he never embraced the “maverick” label, and people were asking, “What happened to John McCain?” Graham chuckled at the memory.

In acknowledging this, Graham was speaking to me as a fellow creature of Washington, fully versed in the election-year “showcasing” he is now engaged in — one of the “people who are so smart” that he derided the day before. “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business,” he said.

Graham would shortly head over to the Capitol for Trump’s State of the Union address, about which the president called him a few hours earlier, seeking input. “Should I go conciliatory or to-hell-with-it?” Trump asked him, according to Graham. “What kind of tone should I take?” In recounting this latest exchange, Graham shook his head and half shrugged. “I have never been called this much by a president in my life,” he told me. His tone reflected a mixture of amazement and amusement, with perhaps a dash of awe. “It’s weird, and it’s flattering, and it creates some opportunity. It also creates some pressure.”
The price of relevance, for Graham, has been a willingness to defend the president on television and speak out on issues that he knows might be of minor consequence in the scheme of things but clearly animate Trump. In recent weeks, for instance, Graham — in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — has demanded a briefing on such Fox News snack food as whether the F.B.I. acted with too heavy a hand in its arrest of the longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone. Graham also vowed to investigate a claim made by Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the F.B.I., that top Department of Justice officials had discussed circumstances in which Trump could be removed from office via the 25th Amendment. “An administrative coup,” Graham said ominously on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

When I asked Graham whether he ever worried about being seen as a toady to Trump, his voice assumed a slightly clipped edge. “No, here’s what I worry about,” he told me. “That we’re going to get it wrong in Syria and Afghanistan. I worry more about the policy stuff. And I have more influence than I’ve ever had.”

Graham credits his relationship with Trump with the president’s slowing down his decision to withdraw from Syria. He noted that Trump asked him whether the United States should use force in Venezuela. Graham said that he preached caution and that Trump became exasperated, or pretended to be. “He said to me, ‘You want to invade everywhere except where I want to invade,’ ” Graham said, laughing. And Trump, he insisted, knew where he stood on the special counsel’s Russia investigation. “I told the president that if you colluded with the Russians, if your campaign sat down and worked with foreign intelligence operatives to manipulate the results of the election, that’d be the end of us, ” Graham said.

Notice that his criteria is extremely narrow — they had to sit down and work with foreign intelligence operatives to manipulate the results of the election. I’m guess that’s unlikely so Lindsay won’t be out there condemning the president for what he knows very well that he did.

But it’s worth it because Trump likes to call him:

Graham says he has achieved graduating levels of relevance with Trump. “I went from, ‘O.K., he’s president’ to ‘How can I get to be in his orbit?’ ”— “orbit” is another favorite Graham word — “to ‘How can I have a say in what’s going to happen today, tomorrow and next week?’ ” he told me.

I asked Graham if he considered himself part of the wider Trump orbit or the more select one. “Well, I’m getting into the smaller orbit now,” he said. I asked him who else was in that precinct of the Trump solar system. He mentioned Melania, Ivanka, Jared. “He’s got a bunch of old friends that still have a say, New York types,” Graham said. “But the circle is small.”

Trump is an entertainer and an agitator, which Graham says he can relate to, in a way. “The point with Trump is, he’s in on the joke,” Graham said. I asked Graham if he is in on the joke, too. “Oh, 100 percent, 100 percent.” He laughed. “Oh, people have no idea.” I asked him to explain the joke to me. “If you could go to dinner with us. … ” he said, shaking his head.

At the end of our second interview, in mid-February, I asked Graham if he trusted Trump. Graham’s eyes seemed to bulge for a split second. He sat back in his chair and paused. “That’s a good question,” he told me.

He paused some more. “Do I trust him?” he said at last. “I trust the president to want to be successful,” he said. The president’s mercurialness, he acknowledged, could be a problem. “He will change his mind in a New York minute,” Graham said. “You never know where he’ll be. I mean, I woke up one day, and we’re pulling out of Syria.”

But to this point, he and Trump have been able to work together. “He’s asked me to do some things, and I’ve asked him to do some things in return,” Graham said. Then, as if looking wistfully over his shoulder at his old maverick-sidekick days, he offered, “There’s sort of a Don Quixote aspect to this.” It was an odd thing for a man who was espousing the median Republican-circa-2019 position to say.

“At the intersection of all this theater is that he wants to be a successful president,” Graham said of Trump, “and I want him to be successful under terms that I think are good for the country.” Understood, but unspoken, was that these terms would also be good for Lindsey Graham.

Well, yeah. But the truth is that it’s only the latter. Nothing Trump does is good for the country on anyone’s terms and Graham knows it.

This is about Huckleberry being a star. But if he thinks Trump actually cares about what he thinks, he’s barking up the wrong tree.

I would just note this little “joke”

He noted that Trump asked him whether the United States should use force in Venezuela. Graham said that he preached caution and that Trump became exasperated, or pretended to be. “He said to me, ‘You want to invade everywhere except where I want to invade,’ ” Graham said, laughing.

Awww. They are both inveterate warmongers but they just want to kill different people. How nice.