Sen. Lindsey O. Graham has made little secret that his pro-Trump conversion has been about politics — specifically his own 2020 campaign. In a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine, he noted that even his close friend John McCain tacked to the right when it came time to seek reelection. “If you don’t want to get reelected, you’re in the wrong business,” he said.
But McCain (R-Ariz.) is also the biggest pressure point when it comes to just how sustainable Graham’s conversion will be, and Trump seems bent on putting his loyalty to the test. He continues to ratchet up his attacks on McCain’s legacy, seven months after the senator’s death.
And if this weekend is any indication, Graham (R-S.C.) isn’t about to stand in his way.
Trump attacked McCain on Saturday for his decisive vote against the GOP’s Obamacare replacement plan. Then Sunday morning, he tweeted a series of incorrect claims about McCain — most notably that McCain worked with Democrats against him in 2016 and ″sent the Fake [Steele] Dossier to the FBI and Media hoping to have it printed BEFORE the Election.” (McCain actually wasn’t made aware of the dossier until after the election.)
Graham did respond to the tweets, standing up for his friend.
“As to @SenJohnMcCain and his devotion to his country: He stepped forward to risk his life for his country, served honorably under difficult circumstances, and was one of the most consequential senators in the history of the body,” Graham tweeted. He added, “Nothing about his service will ever be changed or diminished.”
This is an extremely tepid response.
Yes, Graham stands up for his friend’s honor and service, but consider this:
- The “As to” beginning almost makes it sound as if this is a perfunctory tweet.
- Graham never mentions Trump or makes clear what he’s responding to.
- He doesn’t address Trump’s attacks on McCain’s vote or really do anything to defend McCain’s congressional record. In fact, Graham says only that McCain’s time as a senator was “consequential,” which is basically what Trump is saying — in a negative way. Other than that, he instead praises McCain in general terms for having “served” and for “his service.” The tweets are almost completely lacking in actual, substantial praise.
- He doesn’t respond directly to Trump’s false claims. Graham says nothing about Trump having effectively accused his friend of conspiring with Democrats and trying to stop his election. He also says nothing about Trump sharing former U.S. solicitor general Kenneth Starr’s allegation that McCain’s conduct with regard to the Steele dossier “is unfortunately a very dark stain against John McCain.”
It would be one thing to stand up for McCain’s actual conduct or even to rebut specific allegations without mentioning Trump, but Graham does none of that here. It’s about as vanilla a defense as you could imagine. It’s the kind of thing you would expect from basically any senator who is forced into commenting on Trump’s controversies.
And to be clear, this isn’t just inside-baseball politics. This is the kind of thing that could affect McCain’s legacy inside the party whose nomination he won in 2008. Trump is accusing Graham’s friend of truly awful things: betrayal of the party and even a conspiracy to hijack an election. Graham says nothing about McCain’s “service will ever be changed or diminished,” but that’s what’s happening here.
Graham doesn’t seem willing to go there and risk a rift with Trump, given his own political considerations. But Trump is very much forcing him to choose between those two things. And the more Trump continues to attack a recently deceased war hero, the more difficult it would seem for Graham to continue playing this game. What happens when Trump accuses McCain of something even worse than conspiring with Democrats against him? Graham needs to ask how much he’s willing to turn a blind eye to.