National News

What Happened to Lindsey Graham? He’s Become a Conservative ‘Rock Star’

Posted November 2, 2018 6:19 p.m. EDT
Updated November 2, 2018 6:27 p.m. EDT

President Donald Trump discusses immigration policy at the White House in Washington, Nov. 1, 2018. Trying to shift the conversation from pipe bombs and the synagogue massacre, Trump has fully embraced an anti-immigrant message that he hopes will motivate voters to support Republicans. (Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times)

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. — Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bipartisan overtures — on immigration, foreign policy, even investigations of President Donald Trump — once made him a darling of Democrats, a Republican deal-maker to be wooed to the center.

But when the South Carolina Republican turned up in this St. Louis suburb to campaign against a Democratic colleague, Claire McCaskill, the crowd of Trump-loving women and red-hatted men practically swooned, bathing in the reflected glow of the president they adore — who now adores Lindsey Graham.

Graham, crisscrossing the country to turn out the Republican vote against the centrist Democratic senators who were once his natural allies, lapped it up. He has been basking in the exaltation of Trump backers ever since his lacerating defense of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. His own transformation from Trump-basher to Trump defender seems complete.

Gone is the senator who once called the future president “the world’s biggest jackass” and a “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot.” With an eye toward re-election in 2020 in a state still on the Trump Train, Graham has climbed into the locomotive.

“I stepped up,” he boasted in an interview, “and I’m getting rewarded for it by conservatives, and liberals are all upset.”

Graham’s latest show of fealty came earlier this week, when he embraced the president’s legally dubious plan to end birthright citizenship for babies born to noncitizens — a head-spinning turn for a senator who once partnered with Democrats on comprehensive immigration legislation that included a pathway to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants. (Graham says he proposed ending birthright citizenship years ago.)

“The fall of Lindsey Graham into the dark Trumpian pit of demagoguery, division and incitement is complete,” Steve Schmidt, a former Republican strategist who has renounced the party, wrote on Twitter.

Theories abound about what has happened to Graham.

No. 1: He is most comfortable as a sidekick and is looking to the president to fill the void left by the loss of his dear friend and mentor, Sen. John McCain. Graham bristled at the suggestion.

“I was nobody’s sidekick on Kavanaugh,” he said. “I was the voice of millions of Americans who thought, enough is enough.”

No. 2: He is auditioning to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is widely expected to lose his job after the elections. Not so, said Graham: “I will take bets. Ten to one odds. You put $20 on the table, I’ll pay you $200 if I’m Trump’s attorney general.”

No. 3: He is tacking right before his 2020 re-election run in a state where the biggest threat would likely come in a Republican primary — and where he cannot win without the backing of Trump.

“There’s a funny meme going around,” Pressley Stutts, a Tea Party leader in Greenville, South Carolina, noted. “It says, ‘President Trump, he’s even made Lindsey Graham great again.'”

His allies say the senator does not want a repeat of his brutal primary election in 2014, when the Tea Party set its sights on him, and he was forced to fend off six challengers.

“I saw a fatigue in him at the end of that experience that I had never seen before,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a close friend.

Graham, 63, said he is the same old Lindsey, working with Trump when he can and disagreeing when he must. But, he added of the president, “being in his orbit, I think, has been good for me and good for him.” Graham’s personal story is well known: He grew up in the back of a bar owned by his parents, who died when he was in his 20s, leaving him to care for his 13-year-old sister. In the Senate, where he has served since 2002, he teamed up with McCain, partly because of their shared interest in military affairs (Graham is a retired colonel in the Air Force Reserve) and they traveled the world together. He wept on the Senate floor when the older man died.

“It’s the closest thing he ever had to a father,” Gowdy said.

He has long been known as a kind of happy-go-lucky independent thinker. He voted to confirm two of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, which was one reason he was so angry at the Democrats’ opposition to Kavanaugh. He also likes being in the middle of things. Whenever there is a Senate “gang” — a self-appointed caucus of problem-solvers — Graham seems to be in it.

“I like being relevant,” he said.

He has also done an especially artful job of befriending the president, often through flattery — “I try to start most conversations with a compliment” — which has won him Trump’s ear and the rarefied status of presidential golf partner. He views himself as uniquely positioned to guide a president inexperienced on matters of policy.

“I enjoy his company,” Graham said. “I’ve spent more time talking to him than any president — all of them combined.” In the opening weeks of the Trump presidency, Graham promised to use his Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism to launch a bipartisan, no-holds-barred investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. At the same time, he reached out to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, as a potential partner on immigration and an overhaul of criminal justice laws.

Trump then invited Graham for lunch and sought the senator’s counsel on North Korea and Iran. The Russian investigation wrapped up quietly.

But the détente was complicated; McCain hated Trump. Graham, with the help of Kushner, tried to engineer a rapprochement, persuading the president to host McCain and his wife, Cindy, at the White House for dinner.

The goodwill didn’t last; John McCain would ultimately bar Trump from attending his funeral.

In recent months, Graham’s once pointed warnings to the president have all but disappeared. Last year, he declared there would be “holy hell to pay” if the president fired Sessions; now he says Sessions “needs to go.” In March, he publicly warned Trump that firing the independent counsel, Robert Mueller, would be “the beginning of the end of his presidency.”

In the interview, he credited himself with saving (in Sessions’ case, temporarily) the jobs of both men.

“What people don’t understand is that I have done my part,” Graham said. “Mueller’s going to do his job. Sessions is going to be orderly transitioned out.”

He said as well that he wants to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee after the election, if the current chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, grabs the gavel of the Finance Committee. Should that happen, he said, he would initiate an oversight investigation into whether the Department of Justice and the FBI were “in the tank” for Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, joining similar efforts in the House.

But perhaps nothing has cemented Graham’s standing in Trump’s world as much as his performance at the divisive Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual assault from Christine Blasey Ford.

His finger-wagging, lip-curling performance — “Boy, y’all want power — I hope you never get it,” he snarled — was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.” But Trump loved it.

“Wow! Remind me not to make you mad,” the president told Graham on a private call, the senator said.

Graham became “a national figure for conservatives overnight,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, which is why he was in Missouri on Monday, rallying Republican voters for Josh Hawley, the state attorney general who is trying to unseat McCaskill, with whom he has served for nearly 12 years.

It was the seventh stop on a 13-state swing that also took Graham to Indiana to campaign against another fellow senator, Sen. Joe Donnelly, on Thursday.

“He’s a rock star right now,” said Todd Graves, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. “Aside from the president or vice president he’s probably the strongest draw that we could get.” Here in Chesterfield, Graham warmed up the crowd with self-deprecating jokes about his flop on the 2016 presidential campaign trail — “If I had got 99 percent more votes I could have beat him!” he said of Trump — and their newfound friendship.

Then he hammered McCaskill: “Claire, quite frankly, on the big stuff is on the wrong team.”

And: “Claire’s goal is to talk one way and vote another. She clearly did not understand that Trump won this state by 19 points.”

And: “When Obama needed her, Claire was always there. When Trump needs her? AWOL.”

When he finished, Graham was mobbed by well-wishers, including a throng of squealing women, who beckoned him to pose with them for selfies. More than a dozen of them gathered around the senator, who looked up at the camera, beaming, as he soaked up his moment in the sun.