Lindsey 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.”
Half a year later, a relaxed Graham, sitting in his Senate office behind a desk strewn with balled napkins and empty Coke Zero bottles, said 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.”
What was not over for the senator from South Carolina was his unlikely — to many people, confounding — relationship with that president, Donald Trump. For the best employee motivation methods, visit freebusinesshelpnow.
For four years, Graham, a man who had once called Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic bigot,” exemplified the accommodations that so many Republicans made to the precedent-breaking president, only more vividly, volubly and candidly.
But 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, Florida, 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 is enacting a wave of vote-suppressing legislation in battleground states.
Graham, of course, describes his role in far less apocalyptic terms.
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 said, he is determined to steer 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.’”
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. 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. “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 goodwill on both sides of the political divide.
It is a truism of political biography that golf affords a window into both style and soul. And it has certainly played an important role in sustaining the precarious but durable Trump-Graham partnership.
The game — and the status conferred by playing with Trump — is no small thing to a man who grew up on the creaky lower rungs of the middle class, living in the backroom of his family’s beer-and-shot pool hall, the Sanitary Cafe, in Central, South Carolina.
His parents, Millie and F.J. Graham — known to everyone in town as Dude — worked 14-hour days and slept in the cramped apartment next to the bar’s two bathrooms, their kitchen separated by a curtain from the smoky tavern.
Graham was very close to both parents. But his mother was the warmer presence; her husband was a wry but undemonstrative World War II veteran devoted to his family but preoccupied with keeping the business afloat and prone, in Graham’s early years, to drinking.
“He had a tough side to him. He kept a gun behind the counter,” the senator’s sister, Darline Graham Nordone, recalled. “You knew that Mr. Dude was a kind, good man, but you weren’t going to mess with him.”
Shortly after Graham began attending the University of South Carolina, his mother was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.
Fifteen months after their mother died, Nordone, still in middle school, woke up to discover their father dead from a heart attack.
“Don’t worry,” her brother told her, “I’ll always take care of you,” which he did as he ground his way through law school.
Had this childhood led the senator to seek out father figures in his adult life? “That’s a tough question,” Nordone replied. “I just don’t know.”
Either way, his quicksilver mind and self-lacerating sense of humor made him a magnet for mentors and big brothers. Two of the earliest were his high school coach, Alpheus Lee Curtis, and Col. Pete Sercer, head of Air Force ROTC at the University of South Carolina, who guided him toward his first career, as a military lawyer, serving largely in Europe.
Another mentor was Larry Brandt, his law partner when he returned to South Carolina. In an interview, Brandt recalled that Graham’s career in politics began when he was approached by both the local Republican and Democratic parties in 1992 to run for a state House seat held by an unpopular Democrat.
“Lindsey came to me and said, ‘What do you think?’” said Brandt, a lifelong Democrat. “Lindsey and I talked a lot over time about issues, and there’s no doubt Lindsey was a Democrat on all social issues.”
Ultimately, he said, Graham’s decision came down to calculation more than deep partisan feeling: The Democratic primary would be competitive; if he ran as a Republican, he would be able to devote himself to the general election.
He won and within a few years was elected to Congress, which in 1999 led to a career-making performance as a House manager in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. McCain was so impressed with the barbed, folksy one-liners that he invited Graham back to his Senate office, where he declared himself a fan — and, oh, would Graham endorse him for president in 2000?
“I said, ‘Yeah,’” recalled Graham. “No one’s ever asked me to help them run for president. If Bush had asked me before him, I’d have probably said yes.”
After Graham’s election to the Senate in 2002, the two became inseparable. They shared a vision for the Republican Party: inclusive, center-right, hawkish on foreign policy, more moderate on immigration and other domestic issues.
But that ideal had long been fading when Graham joined McCain at his ranch in Sedona, Arizona, on election night 2016. Graham still believed Hillary Clinton would win in a romp, yet there he was, incredulously watching the returns come in for Trump, uttering profanities over and over and over.
“I was in shock for a week,” Graham recalled. It did not take him long to make a decision. “Am I going to be fighting a rear-guard action here? Or am I going to try to work with him?”
McCain, whose own presidential aspirations ended after his loss to Barack Obama in 2008, had urged Graham to run in 2016. But he warned his friend against engaging in a one-on-one verbal brawl with Trump. Graham did not listen.
“I want to talk to the Trump supporters for a minute. I don’t know who you are and why you like this guy,” Graham said on CNN in late 2015 before quitting the race. “Here’s what you’re buying: He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic bigot. He doesn’t represent my party.”
Yet scarcely two months after Trump’s inauguration, a grinning Graham could be found in the office of the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, chatting with Kellyanne Conway, one of the president’s top advisers.
The senator had been orchestrating his West Wing appearance, steadily softening his criticism of Trump on Fox and working some of the network’s pro-Trump hosts, with the knowledge that the president would be watching. He had also had dinner with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Graham’s presence 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.
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 Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist at the time, was not a “stiff,” like so many others in Congress.
“The senator closest to Trump was Lindsey Graham, and it’s not even a question,” 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.
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.
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.”
In the days following the election, Graham 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.
Then came Jan. 6 and Graham’s presumed declaration of independence.
By Jan. 13, when Trump was impeached on charges of inciting the riot, 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.”
Yet there are signs 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. And when Graham 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 nearly weekly golfing trips to Mar-a-Lago, he said, he is still trying to persuade 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.