The arrangement appears to be running into trouble.
Graham has made a habit of defending most everything Trump does and being one of his most vocal attack dogs. But there’s one area in which the senator attempts to cash in the goodwill he accumulates: foreign policy. Graham will often make or tweet gentle suggestions of a more hawkish course than Trump is taking, without directly calling Trump out.
That changed Tuesday, though, when Graham saw fit to explicitly deride Trump’s Iran policy.
“Clearly what we’re doing isn’t working,” Graham told the Daily Beast.
Graham then tweeted the message and directly invoked Trump, even tagging his Twitter handle. “The measured response by President @realDonaldTrump regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness,” Graham said.
It’s one thing to call out Trump; it’s another to accuse him of coming across as weak. Trump obviously didn’t like it, and he hit back.
“No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!” Trump responded.
But Wednesday, Graham wasn’t exactly backing off the idea that he was directly criticizing Trump. This time, Graham said that new sanctions Trump had announced were insufficient when it comes to changing Iran’s behavior. (The administration has said Iran was behind a recent attack on Saudi oil fields, which would be one of many recent provocative acts.)
“The maximum pressure campaign has worked in the sense it’s crippled the regime’s economy, it’s made life difficult for the regime. But it has not changed their behavior,” Graham told reporters. Asked whether Trump’s sanctions were sufficient, Graham said: “In the past they haven’t been, but time will tell. ... My belief is that additional sanctions will fall short.”
Trump was then asked about this criticism, and he again went after Graham in personal terms, highlighting his support for the Iraq War.
“Ask Lindsey how did going into the Middle East — how did that work out? And how did going into Iraq work out?” Trump said. “So, we have a disagreement on that. And we have plenty of time to do some dastardly things” to Iran.
None of this is to say the relationship is irreparably damaged; Trump will often joust with people he respects in very personal terms before making up with them later. But Graham’s adjustment in strategy is curious. Why change things up and go at Trump so directly, when he knows it could just lead to him being pushed outside Trump’s inner circle?
It seems the strategy of appeasement wasn’t paying the kind of dividends Graham hoped or that they had previously been paying. The row between Trump and Graham comes shortly after Trump ousted his most hawkish aide, former national security adviser John Bolton, amid signs that his foreign policy on issues such as Iran and the Taliban may have been softening.
Just last week, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) more gently called out Trump’s decision to plan the Taliban negotiations in the first place (while making a point to also praise him for scrapping them). She and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) then wound up fighting over which of them Trump is closer to politically.
As I noted at the time, the fact that a Cheney (daughter of Dick) and a Paul (son of Ron) were fighting over this and that both had plausible arguments shows how amorphous and malleable Trump’s foreign policy can be. That’s why people like Graham have set aside their personal pride and rhetorical consistency (and perhaps their true feelings about Trump) in the name of having a seat at the table. Given Trump can be influenced, the rewards for remaining relevant to him can be huge.
But it’s also an odd relationship in which people like Graham apparently feel as though they have to broadcast these messages for all to see, rather than or in addition to communicating them privately to Trump. And apparently, Graham’s message isn’t being received by Trump right now — or at least, not to the senator’s satisfaction.