Lindsey Graham may be the most misunderstood figure in Donald Trump’s Washington. For the #Resistance, the Republican senator from South Carolina is the lickspittle who abandoned his principles for access to a dangerous populist. For the populists, Graham is an interloper, worming his way into the president’s inner circle and persuading him to keep fighting the endless wars Trump campaigned against.
Neither version, however, quite captures the role that Graham plays in Trump’s chaotic presidency. He is neither a Svengali nor a suck up. Rather, he is an honest friend, willing to do something few others in Trump’s inner circle will do: Tell him when he is wrong.
That is the Graham that emerges from Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage.” In scene after scene, Graham is depicted as the Trump confidante urging him to step back from the ledge.
Take Trump’s response to former FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. As Mueller’s final report makes clear, Trump tried many times to have him fired, but his staff never complied. Graham also pleaded with the president to back off.
Woodward reports that also Graham confronted Trump at the beginning of the Russia investigation, telling the president that there was only “one thing that would turn me against you, and that is if you actually worked with the Russians.” Trump insisted that he didn’t. “I believe you,” Graham said. Graham then told Trump the truth: Mueller is the only person who can clear you.
It appears that Graham’s counsel was effective. Trump didn’t fire Mueller. And although his final report found examples of attempted obstruction of his investigation and contacts between his campaign and Russia, Mueller also stated that he found no evidence of a conspiracy between the president’s campaign and the Russian interference operation.
Graham’s approach with Trump stands in sharp relief with the president’s first director of national intelligence, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats. Coats pushed back against Trump on specific policy issues such as his effort to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria. But Woodward does not report that Coats ever confronted Trump directly about whether he colluded with Moscow.
Woodward does report that Coats and his staff perused the most classified intelligence on Trump’s possible ties to Russia and found no proof of collusion. Nonetheless, Woodward says, “Coats’s doubts continued, never fully dissipating.” Coats has not gone on the record to either dispute or affirm this account. When Trump asked him in 2019, before Mueller released his report, to state publicly that he found no proof of collusion, Coats demurred, stressing that the FBI still had an ongoing criminal investigation.
Graham today leads the Senate’s investigation into the FBI’s probe of Trump and Russia. The president’s opponents dismiss Graham’s efforts as an attempt to curry favor with Trump. They shouldn’t. When Mueller was named special prosecutor in 2017, Graham introduced legislation to prevent the president from firing him. He counseled the president to allow Mueller to finish his work. When Trump pressed him in 2019 to issue a subpoena of former president, Barack Obama, Graham publicly said it was a bad idea, leading Trump to temporarily break contact.
Just as Graham is not the sycophant the left paints him to be, he also defies the warmonger caricature forwarded by populists such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
Woodward reveals that Graham repeatedly counseled Trump against the drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Graham warned him that Iran would retaliate and that Trump could find himself launching an attack inside Iranian territory, risking a major war. Trump responded, “He deserves it,” noting intelligence reporting that Soleimani was planning major attacks.
Graham also emerged as an honest friend this summer following the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd. Privately, Graham worried that Trump’s response to the protests and riots that followed Floyd’s killing was in the style of the infamous segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
In a series of phone calls in June, Woodward reports, Graham bluntly told the president that if the election were held today, he would lose. He urged the president instead to take a three-pronged approach to his campaign: Issue an executive order on police reform; propose a massive infrastructure bill and support legislation to protect some 700,000 undocumented young adults who had been brought to the country as children. Trump didn’t take Graham’s advice.
That is often the way it goes with Trump. As the tell-all books published in 2020 document, the president believes that he is his own best counsel. Nonetheless, it’s worth asking: Would the republic be in better shape if Graham had chosen to appease Trump’s resistance, and said publicly the kinds of things he told him in private?
I am not sure it would. Trump won the 2016 election. If he were removed from office through a flawed and abusive FBI investigation, millions of Americans would have viewed their votes as nullified. Graham, who campaigned bitterly against Trump during the primaries, understood this too.
Had Graham followed the lead of his late friend, John McCain, maybe there would have been one more Republican vote for Trump’s impeachment. But it would not have been enough to remove him from office. Instead, Graham made a choice: He is trying to work with the president we have to persuade him to be the president we need.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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