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Lindsey Graham says he might not back McConnell, injecting urgency into Trump-McConnell feud

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), center, listens as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), left, speaks, accompanied by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill in 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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Donald Trump has sought for a year to drive a wedge between Republicans and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — with relatively little success, all told.

But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has now given the wedge a few helpful taps.

Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Wednesday night, Graham made a characteristically pragmatic (rather than moral) case for McConnell to iron things out with the former president. Graham even said he would not be able to support a leader who would be at odds with Trump — becoming the rare senator to publicly threaten not to support McConnell.

“Elections are about the future,” Graham said. “If you want to be a Republican leader in the House or the Senate, you have to have a working relationship with President Donald Trump. He’s the most consequential Republican since Ronald Reagan. It’s his nomination if he wants it, and I think he’ll get reelected in 2024.”

Graham added: “I’m not going to vote for anybody for leader of the Senate as a Republican unless they can prove to me that they can advocate an ‘American First’ agenda and have a working relationship with President Trump, because if you can’t do that, you will fail.”

Graham’s comments notwithstanding, Trump’s effort to turn GOP senators and Senate candidates against McConnell has borne relatively little fruit.

No senators have signed on to the effort, and CNN had reported earlier Wednesday that few GOP candidates had embraced opposing or even threatening to vote against McConnell as leader. It counted just two high-profile candidates who have done so: former Missouri governor Eric Greitens; and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s Republican challenger, Kelly Tshibaka.

The Ohio GOP Senate primary, for example, is a sprint to the right if there ever was one. But even candidates like Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance have declined to toe Trump’s line.

Graham’s decision to enter the fray is an important one: Although Republicans might have been able to skirt the issue in an off-year, a high-profile senator is ensuring that it’s not going away. And that goes particularly as Republicans get closer to a potential takeover of the Senate. They logically will be forced to take a harder position — potentially by Trump himself if he continues the push.

McConnell signaled this week that he will seek the GOP’s No. 1 leadership role next term. And a few weeks ago, he turned more than a few heads by seeming to legitimize a Jan. 6 committee that Trump and his allies have labeled a witch hunt.

But it’s also in line with how Graham has long spoken about things, and he seems to be trying to push McConnell to give in to Trump as much as anything, before the situation gets out of hand.

As far back as February, after McConnell delivered a stemwinder against Trump’s Jan. 6 actions, Graham immediately went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and said he was worried that the rift between Trump and McConnell threatened the GOP’s chances to retake the Senate in 2022.

So much of Graham’s comments about the GOP’s relationship with Trump are in this vein — making a pragmatic rather than a moral or principled case for standing by the former president.

Graham has effectively conceded that his own pro-Trump conversion, which came after he vociferously opposed Trump in the 2016 presidential primaries, was born of political expediency. He has urged his party to stand by Trump because it effectively has no other choice if it wants to win. He has even said the alternative is that a vengeful Trump could destroy the party out of spite.

Graham’s comments Wednesday night should certainly be understood in the same way, but that doesn’t make them any less significant. This tension has simmered more than it has boiled — at least when it comes to how fellow Republicans have dealt with it — but it has shown no sign of evaporating. And now Graham is pushing his party — and more specifically, McConnell — to deal with it before it truly threatens what he and McConnell hold so dear: their power.