The most recent episode came when the Republican senator from South Carolina weighed in on Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) impending excommunication from House GOP leadership.
“Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no,” Graham said. He added: “I’ve always liked Liz Cheney, but she’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump. I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”
That statement is worth a close parse.
On its surface, it’s simply Graham saying Trump is a good thing for the party — that he helps it grow. Trump brought in White, working-class voters! It might be raw political calculation rather than principle, but at least it’s an argument.
But look a little closer, and it’s a pretty remarkable admission. Not only is Graham saying Trump helps the party grow; he’s saying Trump is an irreplaceably necessary ingredient for that growth. There is apparently no way in which the GOP can grow as a party unless one specific person is involved. Ron DeSantis can’t do it. Nikki Haley can’t. Without Trump, the GOP is at the very best stuck where it is — a pretty scary prospect given that it just lost the presidency, the House and the Senate in a single presidential term for the first time since the Great Depression.
Is Graham really saying that the GOP is that beholden to Trump for its future prospects?
A look at his past commentary suggests that’s exactly what he’s saying. And not only that, but he’s provided us with a very specific reason: because Trump could destroy the GOP if he’s cast aside.
“He could make the Republican Party something that nobody else I know can make it,” Graham said in March. “He can make it bigger. He can make it stronger. He can make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it.”
That last sentence was the particularly important part, as I wrote back then. It wasn’t just that Trump could help; it was that he could hurt. This was at a time in which there were reports of Trump potentially forming a third party — a move that would splinter the GOP in perhaps irretrievable ways. When Axios’s Jonathan Swan pressed Graham on whether he was essentially stroking Trump’s ego to dissuade him from such a move, Graham didn’t really push back.
I wrote at the time that what Graham described was essentially a hostage situation. Yes, he said that Trump could and would help. But he also said Trump could do damage if the GOP didn’t bend to his whims, and the newest comment reinforces that. Saying “we absolutely need you” in such an existential way isn’t a great message for someone whose behavior you want to moderate; it’s an admission that you will put up with pretty much anything because you’re fearful about what they could do. It’s one thing to play up what he can do for you; it’s another to pitch yourself as completely hapless without him.
Update: And now Graham has re-upped this description of something amounting to a hostage situation. Per Bloomberg, he said Monday, "If you tried to run him out of the party, he’d take half the party with him.”
But it’s hardly the only subtly honest admission Graham has made about Trump — nor the only one in which he describes himself and his party as subservient to Trump.
“President Trump has been good to me in the sense that he’s allowed me in his world,” Graham said in 2019. “He’s made decisions, I think, based on some input I’ve given him. He’s subject to changing his mind, and I want him to be successful.”
“Allowed me in his world.” Such a comment from the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee was particularly striking. Why does a senator with such heft need to be allowed into the world of the president? Isn’t the legislative branch supposed to be powerful in its own right? What happened to the legislative branch arguably being the most powerful in the United States government?
And earlier that year, Graham, in an interview with the New York Times, explained his pro-Trump conversion since the 2016 campaign (in which he was arguably Trump’s most vocal critic) in remarkably self-serving terms.
“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.
When Graham was pressed on what he meant by “this,” he said it was “to try to be relevant.”
“I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he said.
Given all of the above commentary, it’s clear from which vantage point Graham views Trump’s continued leadership of the GOP. It’s not in terms of who is best for the party on a policy level or even a good-government level; it’s about managing a bad situation and getting the most you can out of it. That goes double when you’re concerned about what the former guy could do to you if you don’t play ball.
And it might actually be an accurate picture of things. It’s just not, as Graham’s comments have repeatedly indicated, a particularly proud one.