Has a politician ever debased himself more in public than when Lindsey Graham eulogized his friend John McCain? Bleary-eyed from grief, the senior senator from South Carolina took his place at the lectern on the Senate floor and insisted on his own inferiority. He was the Great Man’s mascot, his funny little buddy — his “wingman,” he said — lucky to have walked in his shadow and blessed to have been loved by him. McCain, who used pejoratives as endearments, called Graham “Little Jerk.” Recalling this, Graham looked up from his notes, seeming to be considering its meaning for the first time. “You’ve all got your names,” he said darkly. “And you earned them like I did.”
It is tempting to imagine that in that moment, Graham was reflecting on all the ways he had betrayed his friend. McCain hated Trump with all his tenacious strength and banned him from his own funeral, yet as McCain lay dying, Graham went golfing with the president. Later he helped wangle an invitation to the funeral for Ivanka and Jared.
McCain hated Putin, too — “an evil man [who] is intent on evil deeds,” he wrote before his death — and, as a senator, devoted himself single-mindedly to preserving American hegemony abroad.
Yet a couple of days before McCain died, Graham was on Fox, giving Trump cover for potentially firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the midterms — a move that could have catastrophic political and constitutional effects should a more malleable AG find a way to end or curb the Mueller probe. Earlier this month, Graham clarified his position again, saying any new AG nominee would have to protect the investigation.
This waffling, from a politician who has always presented himself as a stalwart protector of the rule of law, made Democrats who had imagined in him a conscience or a plausible rebel turn away in despair. Even some of Graham’s erstwhile friends in the GOP reminded him of what he’d said just last year, that if Trump fired Sessions, “there would be holy hell to pay.” Bill Kristol, the conservative pundit and former ally of Graham’s, shamed him on Twitter: “History will record that @LindseyGrahamSC went out of his way to court favor with Donald Trump at precisely the moment … his enablers needed to hear a message of resistance.”
Before the Senate, the man who answered to “Little Jerk” wept. Was he talking to the nation or to himself when he added this: “It’s going to be a lonely journey for me for a while. Don’t look to me to replace this man.”
During the 2016 election, Graham was defined by his loathing for Trump. The number of Republicans are legion who once promised to stand up to him but have failed to do so — worse, have capitulated to his vanity and turned a blind eye to his corruption. But of all the turncoats and double-talkers on Capitol Hill, there is no more vivid example than Graham, who during the campaign drew the brightest of lines, calling Trump a “kook,” a “jackass,” “a race-baiting bigot,” and “the most flawed nominee in the history of the Republican Party.”
The brawl between Graham and Trump was more than political theater: It was personal. First Trump insulted McCain, denigrating his heroism in Vietnam. Then he gave out Graham’s personal cell-phone number on TV. His foul language, his lack of intelligible policy positions, his isolationism, his disregard for the Constitution and the traditions of government — all this infuriated Graham, and during Inauguration Week, he and McCain were seen in the offices of the Senate building plotting to lead a brave Republican resistance. “They were off the charts,” says someone who encountered them then. “Explosive.”
But as the presidency wore on, of course, Graham’s path diverged from McCain’s. After a few short months of détente, mutual friends of Graham and the president, including some GOP bigwigs connected with Fox, prevailed on them to have a make-up lunch. What went down that day in March 2017 was no rehashing of past hurts or any quid pro quo but a bunch of joke telling. There, Graham and Trump discovered their mutual love for bro-ish trash talk and golf. “I think Lindsey likes the president a lot more than he thought he would,” says Steve Largent, the former NFL player who became close with Graham when they were freshmen in the House. But more, “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.”
It was at this juncture, according to someone familiar with his thinking, that Graham made the strategic decision to publicly flatter Trump. Occasionally, maintaining some profile of independence, he would push back — always in defense of his friend McCain, or when the president called certain countries “shitholes,” or when he threatened to pull troops from Syria. But in general, it made no sense to stand on principle only to draw Trump’s petty wrath — and risk getting fired in the next cycle by hard-liners back home. Better, Graham thought, to praise him in public in order to influence him in private. Graham understood that “all Trump really cares about is being celebrated,” this person said. By genuflecting to Trump, Graham could seem to be in collaboration with him — the impression probably most important to the president — and “move mountains behind closed doors.”
The public romance between Graham and Trump flourished during the summer and fall of 2017, amid golf games and Twitter compliments. McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer in July, and late that month, in an act of virtue or maybe vengeance, he cast the decisive vote to preserve the Affordable Care Act, while Graham voted with his party to scuttle it. McCain loyalists argued privately with Graham, but when CNN asked him about it, Graham grew defiant, insisting that his bond with McCain transcended any vote. “John McCain was willing to die for this country” — here his voice broke and his eyes welled up — “he can vote however he wants to, and it doesn’t matter to me in terms of friendship.”
It is perhaps useful to know that Graham grew up in a bar. His parents owned the Sanitary Cafe, a watering hole and pool hall popular with local textile workers, in a town called Central, in a region known as the Upcountry in the northwest of the state, a budding Appalachia. The patrons, many of whom, Graham once recalled, were missing fingers from machine accidents, were known locally as “lint heads” because of the cotton that stuck to their hair and clothing. African-American customers had to take their beer to go.
Graham, his parents, and his sister, Darline, 13 years younger, slept in one room behind the bar, and Graham worked at the bar after school. There he honed the skills that have defined him in politics: Always be charming, ready with a joke and a story; don’t make enemies; keep grudges private; defuse open conflict and resolve fights out back. Even among his political opponents, Graham maintains a reputation as great company, the kind of guy who will travel with Elizabeth Warren to Iraq just to show her around. Al Franken once called him the “funniest Republican in the Senate.” Graham tried to charm everyone, regardless of party. “He’ll disagree with you one day and the next day be working with you,” says Joe Riley, the former longtime Democratic mayor of Charleston, admiringly.
Every good bartender knows that a friendly face and an occasional drink on the house keep folks happy, and Graham absorbed these lessons, too. “When I ran for Congress, he endorsed the guy I ran against,” recalls Representative Trey Gowdy, a close friend. After winning the primary, “I think the first call I got was from Lindsey,” Gowdy continues. “Typical Lindsey. You beat me, now I’m going to be the best friend you got. I was the least surprised person in the world that the president and Lindsey play golf with each other.” Graham and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley represent opposing factions of their state’s GOP — he the “Establishment” and she the tea party — but when, as governor, Haley needed something on the Hill, “one of her first calls was always to Senator Graham,” says Rob Godfrey, who worked for Haley.
Both of Graham’s parents died when he was an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, and Darline became Graham’s charge. She stayed with an aunt and uncle while he went to law school, also at South Carolina; then he joined the Air Force, becoming a trial officer in the JAG corps. For a poor young man from a small country town, these affiliations were bolstering. Trial lawyers are tacticians, able to charge down one course while plotting alternate lines of attack. Graham was good at it, and to this day, lawyers and law firms, a sector not usually associated with GOP giving, are the largest contributors to his campaigns (bankers are second).
“He’s an attorney and always looking out for attorneys,” complains Largent.
But it was the military — its hierarchy, its fraternity, its sense of mission — that gave the orphaned Graham a second family. As a young lawyer, Graham joined the reserves and officially adopted Darline so she could enroll in his military health benefits. His unwavering loyalty to the armed forces is bedrock for Graham, and his commitment to their work overseas is his singular political priority. Graham’s most consistent crusade in the Senate has been a hawkish insistence on increasing funds and manpower to American military and nonmilitary operations abroad. Since 2015, Graham has held the powerful post of chairman of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The subcommittee funds nearly every U.S. program abroad, outside of the Defense Department, and, in its fiscal-2019 budget, allocated $3 billion to Israel and $1.5 billion to Jordan. In his position, Graham does nothing less than establish American priorities abroad and write the checks that support them. In Washington, some like to speculate that Graham sucks up to Trump in hopes of becoming the next secretary of Defense.
The military is also the basis of his kinship with McCain, who took note of Graham during the latter’s witty and zealous performance as a manager during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. Graham famously said, “You know, where I come from, any man calling a woman at 2 a.m. is up to no good.” In the summer of 1999, while preparing a run for president, McCain reached out to Graham and his fellow South Carolinian Representative Mark Sanford and invited them to his Sedona ranch for Fourth of July fireworks and fishing. They idolized McCain and were starstruck. “Warren Beatty was there and his wife, Annette,” remembers Sanford. “It was get-to-know-you, give you face time so you feel included — yeah, I got invited to the ranch. It sounds quite grand.” McCain’s wartime heroism and his posture of political independence gave Graham a model of statesmanship. “Lindsey for some reason had sort of a man-crush on John McCain,” says Largent.
Graham lives alone and has never married, which has sometimes sparked insinuations about his personal life that he’s always swatted away. “Don’t believe anything anybody tells you about my Air Force exploits,” Graham once told the Washington Post about his military tour, which took him to Paris and Rome. “I was very heterosexual, that’s all you need to know.” (His record on LGBTQ-rights legislation is consistently conservative.) David Woodard, who ran Graham’s first congressional campaign, in 1994, believes Lindsey is married to politics — “One of those pledged bachelors,” he says. “Maybe if you were in Oxford or Cambridge, you had dons like that.”
Friends of Graham’s say that on the things that matter to him most, his sycophancy has been a success. Under the influence of Graham (as well as John Kelly and James Mattis and others), Trump has become far more hawkish than he was as a candidate or a private citizen, when he opposed U.S. involvement in Syria and Afghanistan. As president, Trump has increased troops in Afghanistan and has extended U.S. military engagement in Syria (Graham’s priority) indefinitely. His withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal had Graham’s full support, as did his relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Graham has long argued that terrorist suspects should be tried in military courts and not civil ones and was happy the president chose to keep the prison open at Guantánamo Bay. Graham pushed through legislation called the Taylor Force Act, which ends U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, pending changes in the way the PA distributes that money. “You can go across the board on the foreign-policy front, and Graham has his fingerprints on everything,” a friend said.
On Russia, though, Graham has been threading the needle — or, rather, covering his ass. On Fox, he dutifully demonstrates his fealty to Trump, making the case wherever possible that “collusion” and “meddling” are not the same thing and directing media attention away from the president and back toward Trump’s favorite villains: Hillary Clinton, the Justice Department, and the FBI. “I’ve seen no evidence of collusion after two years,” Graham told Fox & Friends last month, before reciting lines that might have come out of Trump’s mouth: “Plenty of corruption in the Department of Justice and the FBI — should be stunning; not one Democrat seems to care.” Two days later, he was splicing hairs on CBS, upholding the Mueller investigation — with caveats. “There is no scenario where you can end this investigation, the Mueller investigation, through some political intrigue and survive. That’s the end of you” — italics mine, the implication being that while pique might be a bad motivation for firing Mueller, other, better, legitimate reasons might also exist.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Graham makes a performance of his patriotism, cosponsoring bipartisan bills that will never pass, such as the one he introduced with Cory Booker in April giving extra protections to Mueller’s job (which Mitch McConnell has blocked) and the one he introduced in August with Bob Menendez that increases sanctions on Russia in an effort to deter meddling in the midterms. Both maneuvers appear designed to make Graham look prescient should disaster occur — without his having to assume the political risk of actually intercepting such disasters with meaningful action.
In this way, he is behaving much like the rest of his party, if only more visibly: uncertain whether the midterms will deliver a blow to the Trumpist takeover of the GOP or formalize it. Graham’s ultimate refusal to take a stand against Trump, when once he promised — so loudly! — to lead that charge, defies easy explanation. But the likeliest rationale is not that Trump or the Russians know some secret about Graham, or that the real Graham has been abducted by aliens, but that he has always operated like this, talking big but playing both sides and biding his time until a victor emerges — then positioning himself to his own best advantage. If the Trumpists win, Graham can claim elite membership in that tribe; if the Dems sweep Congress, he can establish himself as a leader of the middle. “He’s a survivor,” says one political colleague. “He’s Machiavellian in the way he tacks back and forth.”
Graham’s history of self-serving recalibrations is well documented. In January 1999, he was on the floor of Congress, self-righteously wagging his finger and setting a moral — not legal — standard for the removal of a president from office. “Impeachment is about cleansing the office,” he pronounced, Cotton Mather–like. “Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity.” This clip was circulating recently on Twitter, evidence to some that Graham is a hypocrite. But Graham was merely being himself. Not six months earlier, in the fall of 1998, he was breakfasting with his Democratic colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee, looking for ways to avoid impeachment proceedings and wondering if they were a drain of taxpayer money and a waste of everyone’s time, proclaiming, “If we impeach people for being silly and doing inappropriate things, we’ll wipe Congress out.” More recently, when asked whether he believed that Trump broke campaign-finance laws when he instructed his personal attorney Michael Cohen to pay off the porn star Stormy Daniels, Graham answered as truthfully as he could: “My No. 1 goal right now is to keep doing my day job.” And his power depends, at least until things change, on Trump’s continuing to be in power.
“His identity has become wrapped up in keeping that office,” says one old friend. All who know him say that what Graham loves most is to be at the center of things — the guy on the phone with the president in the middle of the night. Aides and staffers on both sides in Congress describe him as a buzzing bee, the guy who’s always in the Gang of 12 or Eight or however many there are, going back to his earliest days in Congress when he was a leader of the GOP rebels who attempted to oust Newt Gingrich (whom he recently praised for his memorializing of McCain). Except in foreign policy, “I don’t think he’s seen as a policy heavyweight,” says one Democratic operative in the Senate. “He’s seen as the guy who always wants to be in the middle. Rarely does he even break with Republicans. When you have an absolutely moronic ‘Common Sense Caucus,’ yeah, Lindsey is in the middle of it.”
Graham’s people-pleaser approach has worked for him so far in South Carolina. He raises enough money from wealthy out-of-state donors — and provides employment for all the top local operatives — that primary challengers haven’t stood a chance. And he covers his right flank by earning an A- rating from the NRA and a top score from anti-abortion activists. In 2014, the last time he was up for reelection, the National Review tagged him as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. But he crushed six primary opponents, none of whom raised over $1 million. He took in $11 million, a good bit of it from the pro-Israel lobby.
But Graham’s political tightrope act looks increasingly precarious. He’s up for reelection in 2020, and right now his approval rating in South Carolina is at an all-time low, 41 percent, while Trump’s has remained about steady at 54 — a sign that Graham’s toggling between fealty and empty gestures of resistance might be backfiring at a time when the electorate continues to be fixated on ideological purity. In his state, GOP operatives are cheerfully compiling lists of candidates who might beat him in a primary. His prospective challengers this time are bigger fish, with better name recognition and the donors to match. Gowdy, who is retiring from Congress, tops everyone’s list, but he swears he won’t oppose his friend. (“I would not run against him if you guaranteed me I would win,” he says.) Other possibilities include Haley (though the consensus is that she has more national aspirations); Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget and another golfing partner of Trump’s; Jeff Duncan, who represents Graham’s old district in Congress; and Sanford. Already, a businessman named John Warren has tentatively tossed his hat into the ring. A self-made millionaire and former Marine, Warren represents a credible threat. (His bid for the GOP nomination for governor was derailed only after Trump threw his support to his opponent, Henry McMaster.)
In South Carolina, the Trumpist right loathes Graham for a lot of things — he’s careerist, condescending, and arrogant, they say — but none more than his continued insistence on immigration reform, a policy position he picked up from McCain. Graham’s commitment to the issue has been cast as “principled,” but it’s likelier to be tactical, a play to broaden the demographics of the GOP to the benefit of politicians like himself — not a dishonorable aim, to be sure, but hardly evidence of Graham’s moral core. And in any case, that get-a-bigger-tent notion of the party’s future has fallen out of favor with the base. Trumpists in South Carolina call their senior senator “Grahamnesty”; others prefer “Flimsy Graham.” Mention Graham’s legislative partners — Ted Kennedy, Chuck Schumer, and, most recently, Dick Durbin — to this group, who are far more partisan than pragmatic, and they become apoplectic.
The immigration debacle of last winter proves just how little Graham — or any politician — gains from an alliance with Trump, whose own disloyalty knows no bounds. After all the golf and all the late-night comity, Graham believed he had persuaded the president to sign on to the latest version of his reform package, co-sponsored with Durbin. Trump called it “a bill of love,” and Graham thought he had the votes. But in the end, he was betrayed, the president ambushing him and Durbin in a meeting, siding with the rightists in his circle, calling immigrant countries “shitholes,” and allowing his henchpeople to publicly humiliate and insult Graham without ever coming to his defense. A courtship with Trump is a tricky business, says one Republican aide: “Does he have access? Yes. Does he have influence? It’s debatable. They’re dating, but it’s a long way off before the president says ‘Yes.’ ”
In his eulogy for his friend McCain on the floor of the Senate on August 28, Graham said, “Honor is doing the right thing at your own expense.” It was as if he were reminding himself.