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Lindsey Graham explains his pro-Trump conversion — and it’s not because he thinks Trump is great

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) once said President Trump was unfit for office. Now Graham can't stop praising Trump. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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It’s time to stop asking what happened with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s complete 180 on President Trump, because Graham has now made it abundantly clear: political expediency.

But that, in and of itself, suggests his view of Trump remains about as dim as it was before.

This is a question that has stalked Graham for some time. How could he go from calling Trump a “kook” who is “unfit for office” in 2016 to the guy who, in 2017, infamously attacked others for labeling Trump a “kook not fit to be president?” And it is a fair question; Washington is not a place chock-full of principled stands and consistency, but even here the disconnect between 2016 Graham and 2017-19 Graham is remarkable.

Mark Leibovich got answers out of Graham in a new New York Times Magazine profile:

What did happen to Lindsey Graham? I raised the question directly to him the following afternoon in his Senate office in Washington. Graham was collapsed behind a cluttered desk, sipping a Coke Zero and complaining of exhaustion.
“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.
I asked what “this” was. “ ‘This,’ ” Graham said, “is to try to be relevant.” Politics, he explained, was the art of what works and what brings desired outcomes. “I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he told me.

Graham goes on to recount how his close friend and fellow sometimes-maverick in the Senate, the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), beat back a 2010 primary challenge by reinventing himself as “the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate.” Graham, who is up himself in 2020 and has faced his own primaries, added to Leibovich: “If you don’t want to get reelected, you’re in the wrong business.”

Graham has hinted at such a transparently political calculus before, but here he seems to lean into it even more. Leibovich writes Graham delivered that last quote while making clear he was “speaking to me as a fellow creature of Washington, fully versed in the election-year ‘showcasing’ he is now engaged in.”

One might say Graham admitting exactly what game he is playing is a refreshing bit of honesty. But the subtext is almost unmistakable: Graham is basically admitting his view of Trump has not changed appreciably. He is just doing this, after all, for his own political capital and reelection prospects.

And what’s more, it is telling that he feels the need to rationalize it. If he truly thought Trump was a great president and person, that would be a pretty simple answer to questions like Leibovich’s. I thought Trump was bad, but I was totally wrong, and now I support him. That would seem to be even better for his reelection prospects, because it would suggest his pro-Trump evolution was more heartfelt. Yet that is not what Graham’s saying; he is basically saying he is trying to make lemonade out of lemons.

Having read the Leibovich profile, I kept thinking back to then-Sen. Arlen Specter — another moderate-ish GOP senator from Pennsylvania — explaining his switch in 2010 to the Democrats. “My change in party will enable me to be reelected,” Specter said. The quote was featured in an ad by his primary opponent, who defeated Specter for the Democratic nomination.

Specter’s admission was more ham-handed than Graham’s, but they are of the same ilk. Both men are copping to doing things they may not truly believe in because it increases their chances of self-preservation and, by extension, accomplishing things. But just as Specter was tacitly admitting his evolution was not really one of conviction, so, too, is Graham.

The fact that Graham feels the need to admit to anything is what’s most conspicuous. It is almost as if he does not totally want to associate himself with Trump.