The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lindsey Graham points to GOP’s reality under Trump: It’s a hostage situation

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s relationship with former president Donald Trump has contained multitudes. He was arguably Trump’s biggest critic on the 2016 debate stage, saying that nominating Trump would deservedly destroy the party, but he later became one of Trump’s biggest Senate allies. All the while, he seemed to want to make clear that this was a marriage of convenience rather than true conviction — the price to pay for getting things done.

On Sunday, though, Graham (R-S.C.) described the relationship between Trump and the GOP in starker terms: as something akin to a hostage situation.

In a must-watch interview with Axios on HBO, Jonathan Swan pressed Graham on why he continued to stand by Trump. Swan noted that Trump is no longer in office, that he pushed lies about the 2020 election being stolen that resulted in the Capitol riot, and that Graham just won reelection — meaning his apparent 2020 considerations may no longer apply.

Graham, as he often has, insisted that he was trying to make the best of the situation — to get the good out of Trump while dealing with the bad.

“Donald Trump was my friend before the riot,” Graham said. “And I’m trying to keep a relationship with him after the riot. I still consider him a friend. What happened was a dark day in American history, and we’re going to move forward. So here’s what you need to know about me: I want this to continue — I want us to continue the policies that I think will make America strong. I believe the best way for the Republican Party to do that is with Trump, not without Trump.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Jan. 7 said he opposes invoking the 25th Amendment and blamed President Trump’s legal team for spreading disinformation. (Video: The Washington Post)

This is similar to what Graham has said before. In a 2019 interview with the New York Times magazine, for instance, he described a mostly transactional relationship with Trump by saying, “If you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this.” Pressed on what “this” was, he said it “is to try to be relevant.” Graham has alternately praised Trump for letting him be a part of Trump’s world, as though he’s not a member of a branch of government that is supposed to be coequal to the presidency.

That calculus doesn’t apply nearly as much anymore, given that Trump doesn’t wield the power of the presidency. But Graham suggests now that his continued alliance with Trump is less about calculation and more about making the best of a bad situation — one in which the other side clearly holds the cards.

He described Trump as “a cross between Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan and P.T. Barnum,” and someone who both has a “dark side” and is capable of “magic.”

“What I’m trying to do is just harness the magic,” Graham said.

Then comes the interesting part.

“He could make the Republican Party something that nobody else I know can make it,” Graham said, comparing Trump’s “magic” to what John McCain and Mitt Romney were unable to build with the party. “He can make it bigger. He can make it stronger. He can make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it.”

The “destroy it” line could be understood as a mere reflection of what could happen if Trump gives in to his “dark side.” But there’s another explanation: that it’s what Trump could willingly do to the party if it doesn’t play ball with him. And that seemed to be what Graham was really saying.

Swan pressed Graham on this point, referring to the senator encouraging Trump to run again in 2024.

“I just don’t understand how you could — you don’t really believe that, do you?” Swan said. “You’re just BSing so he doesn’t go off and form a third party.”

Graham, tellingly, didn’t dispute the premise.

“A third party would be a disaster,” Graham said instead.

“I know it! That’s what you’re doing,” Swan said. “You’re stroking his ego.”

Swan is right. And the interview drove home exactly the dilemma the GOP faces right now. Whatever desire exists to break with Trumpism has to be balanced against the arduousness of the attempted break. Whatever one thinks of Graham not-so-subtly acknowledging that he sets aside principle in favor of political expediency, at least he’s being more honest about it than his colleagues.

That may be self-serving in that it allows Graham to subtly distance himself from Trump’s worst impulses, but his comments for the past few years have gone further than other Republicans in acknowledging the reality in which they have found themselves in the Trump era.

It’s not a pretty reality. In fact, it casts them as pretty inept politically.