One of the most telling features of Trump's presidency is the silence of his fellow Republicans. The GOP has largely given up on criticizing his controversial comments, having been rebuked too many times by their base for doing so. The best way to tell when they think Trump has gone too far is when they try to say as little as possible.

But sometimes they can't help but say what they really think.

That was the case Friday with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham. The South Carolina Republican badly wants to remain in Trump's good graces — going so far as to admit he moderates his public comments to do so. And yet even in an interview in which he suggested Trump's concerns about law enforcement were somewhat warranted, Graham issued a subtly strong rebuke of Trump's evidence-free claim that the FBI was “spying” on his campaign.

Asked by conservative radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt whether Trump is right to label the situation “spygate,” Graham didn't directly answer but did say, “A confidential informant is not a spy.”

Graham went on to say that safeguards should be in place to prevent abuses. But Hewitt noted that Graham didn't exactly answer the question and asked again whether “spygate” was appropriate.

Graham's response: “I don’t know. Probably not, but I don’t know. I didn’t go to the meeting. I don’t think it’s — I don’t think he’s a spy. And I don’t know who this person was.”

Graham was clearly trying not to rock the boat. But even he couldn't bring himself to approve Trump's rhetoric about spying.


Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) questions Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in January. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

And that's really the story of this whole sordid affair. If this were something that Republicans viewed as a legitimate claim, they would be echoing it far and wide. They have not. In the same interview, Graham lent credence to Trump's claims that the FISA warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was worthy of inquiry. But he also sharply undercut Trump's central claim about the FBI informant.

And part of the reason for that is because Trump's rhetoric is indefensible. There is no evidence that Stefan Halper was anything but a normal informant who talked to Trump campaign aides. Trump previously suggested the then-unknown source was “implanted” in his campaign, which isn't true. And to make his case, he has repeatedly and blatantly misquoted and mischaracterized former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.

The fact that Republicans like Graham can't just say how over-the-top these claims are is notable — as it is when they hint at their true thoughts.

Here is the relevant portion of his exchange with Hewitt:

HEWITT: Do you think the president is correct to use the hashtag and to call this “spygate”?

GRAHAM: Oh, I didn’t go to the event yesterday. A confidential informant is not a spy. I don’t know if there’s a reason to have a confidential informant following a campaign. But let’s put it this way. There needs to be some protocols in place if this ever happens again. Right now, there are rules saying you can’t, you know — you don’t want investigations to change political cycles. So there’s rules about, you know, ending and starting investigations because of the political cycle. There’s also rules about going into a lawyer’s office. That’s a big deal. There should be some rules about surveilling a major party nominee’s campaign. And there probably is not any.

HEWITT: So you evaded there artfully, as I would expect from Lindsey Graham. The question, should the president use the term "spygate"?

GRAHAM: I don’t know. Probably not, but I don’t know. I didn’t go to the meeting. I don’t think it’s — I don’t think he’s a spy. And I don’t know who this person was.

HEWITT: You haven’t met Stefan Halper? You’ve never met him?

GRAHAM: No, but here’s the question. What did they get? I mean, Carter Page is not being charged as far as I know. I know he was surveilled by a FISA warrant. The FISA warrant was based on the dossier. Ninety percent of it came from the dossier. So the real question is what did this British guy get from the Trump people that became actionable? It doesn’t seem like much.

HEWITT: Isn’t the most interesting question about Mr. Halper is who ran him, who was running him?

GRAHAM: Yeah. I mean, okay, you know, what led to the idea you needed a confidential informant? Who did he report to? I know who Mr. Steele reported to. He reported to Bruce Ohr, which was odd. The Number 4 guy at DOJ is running a confidential informant, and his wife works for the same organization, Fusion GPS. That’s a bit odd.

HEWITT: It has been suggested that Mr. Brennan initiated Mr. Halper’s contact. Do you believe that?

GRAHAM: Don’t know. It would be a good question to ask and find the answer to. How did it start? What led us to believe he needed a confidential informant regarding the Trump campaign?