Just weeks later, he is singing a different tune. Graham is set to visit the former president’s gilded Mar-a-Lago Club on Sunday to spend two days golfing and dining with Trump. He has spoken to the former president nearly daily since Jan. 6 — more frequently than any of his Republican colleagues in the Senate — and served as an informal adviser to Trump’s defense team during his Senate impeachment trial this month.
Meanwhile, Graham said he has not spoken with President Biden, a longtime friend from the Senate, since his Jan. 20 inauguration.
Graham’s post-presidential embrace of Trump — which puts him squarely at odds with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — is the latest twist in his on-again, off-again relationship with a man he once called a “kook” and warned could destroy the party. It comes after the four-term senator said he reviewed polling in South Carolina and across the country that shows Trump’s enduring strength among Republicans, even after the Jan. 6 insurrection that resulted in five deaths.
“If he ran, it would be his nomination for the having,” Graham said of Trump in an interview. “I don’t know what he wants to do. Because he was successful for conservatism and people appreciate his fighting spirit, he’s going to dominate the party for years to come. The way I look at it, there is no way we can achieve our goals without Trump.”
Graham is now positioning himself as a leader of the pro-Trump wing of a party that is increasingly divided about how to reckon with the divisive 45th president.
In Graham’s view, embracing Trump is simply practical politics. To critics, he is showing a willingness to tolerate Trump’s attacks on democracy in exchange for proximity to power.
In the wake of the Capitol attack and the GOP’s losses of the House, Senate and White House, some in the Republican Party’s upper echelon are calling for a different path forward, worried that Trump’s toxic brand will prevent the party from winning general elections in 2022 and 2024.
Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley has said the party needs to turn the page on Trump, who she said has “fallen so far.” After voting to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial, McConnell delivered a scathing speech, calling him “practically and morally responsible” for the violence at the Capitol — and he has told allies he plans to never speak with Trump again.
Some are trying to pave a path in the middle: Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is scheduled to visit Mar-a-Lago next week to meet with Trump, even as she vows to stay neutral in the internecine warring, according to a person familiar with her plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, in part to encourage Trump not to attack any incumbent House Republicans.
But Graham is all in. While he told reporters a day after the Capitol attack that “the president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution,” he now says he was talking narrowly about what happened Jan. 6. His “count me out” remarks were a reference to attempts to challenge the 2020 election results, he says — not a statement that he was finished with Trump.
Two days after the insurrection, he met with Trump for four hours to discuss quietly finishing his term and the potential of impeachment, among other topics. He then flew with him to Texas the next week and called fellow senators, urging them not to support a move to convict Trump in a trial and bar him from future office. In private and public, he has taken on Republicans who are critical of Trump, including McConnell, who he has pushed to change course.
“He doesn’t speak for most Republicans when it comes to the comments he made about Trump,” Graham said of McConnell’s speech after the impeachment trial. (He added that McConnell deserves credit on other fronts, such as furthering the appointment of conservative judges.)
A spokesman for McConnell did not respond to a request for comment.
Longtime GOP operatives and people who know both men have said Graham is simply seeking to stay relevant and likes being close to powerful people.
Matt Moore, a prominent South Carolina political consultant who worked for Graham in his 2020 reelection campaign and once chaired the state party, said the explanation for Graham’s posture is simple: he wants to align himself with the party’s most popular figure.
After previously facing criticism in his home state for not being conservative enough, Graham was reelected last year by double digits after his strong embrace of Trump, who romped to victory in South Carolina.
And Graham, more than anything, according to both allies and critics, wants to be as close to the action as possible.
“It’s smart politics,” Moore said. “Republican voters love President Trump. He wants to have a seat at the table than not. He knows a smart bet when he sees it.”
Graham is also well aware that those who cross Trump pay the price with his supporters. Two days after his “count me out” speech, Graham was accosted by pro-Trump supporters who denounced him as a “traitor” at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. This week, Haley’s Facebook page was inundated with thousands of commenters attacking her for criticizing Trump. The former president rejected her request for a meeting, a Trump aide said. And party officials in Kentucky have denounced McConnell and called for his resignation.
Graham has disappointed those in South Carolina who preferred the more moderate Graham — the one who was closely allied with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who died in 2018, and at one point worked on a deal with President Barack Obama to cut carbon emissions that ultimately fell apart.
His critics say they remember a Graham who despised Trump and what Trump stood for — and was not so craven, in their view. One longtime McCain confidant said Graham is no longer in touch with many of his old friends.
Amanda Loveday, a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party who helped run a Biden super PAC in 2020, said it was frustrating to watch Graham continue to prop up Trump.
“Like a lot of others, I have voted for him,” she said. “Everyone in South Carolina used to think he was the most reasonable man in Washington, and that has changed. Now people think he has tied himself to a horse that is unexplainable. There really is no explanation to it. He has the power to tell the Republican Party that they’re moving on.”
One Biden ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation, said Biden asked last fall “what had happened to Lindsey.” The longtime former senator from Delaware, who once regarded Graham as a friend, was “shocked” by some of Graham’s comments during the campaign.
The White House declined to comment.
In an interview, Graham said he still planned to negotiate policy with Biden at the right time, and would like to work with him on an infrastructure deal.
“Joe is a fine man,” he said. “There will be a day for that.”
Graham took a very different stance toward Trump when the real estate developer was running for president in 2016. The senator regularly questioned his fitness to lead and said the Republican Party deserved to be destroyed if it selected Trump as the nominee. At one point, Graham called on Trump to “stop being a jackass,” prompting Trump to taunt him at a rally and read Graham’s cellphone number out loud.
But Graham said that once Trump was elected, he wanted to help him be successful — and has grown to like him.
Some former Trump aides and GOP strategists say Graham likes the stardom of being around Trump. Even Trump has remarked to allies that he is surprised at Graham’s approach after their brutal 2016 encounters, and former Trump aides said Graham was always angling to get on the golf course with the president.
Jason Miller, a spokesman for the former president, declined to comment, other than to say that the two men have a “very friendly” relationship.
In Graham’s telling, he spends time with Trump because “I genuinely like his company.”
“During the primary, I ran out of bad things to say about him. It’s an odd thing that we wound up where we did,” he said, adding: “I had more access to him than any and all presidents combined. He’s a good listener, believe it or not.”
Nowadays, he said he is driven simply by what is best for the GOP, which he says has a “conundrum” on its hands.
“You look at the polling, it shows he dominates the Republican Party, but that a majority of the general population wanted to convict him,” Graham said. “From November 3rd to January 6th he took a giant step backwards, but he had a consequential presidency. His policies are going to stand the test of time. If President Trump continues to be sort of disciplined and talks about policy, some of those personal issues will begin to lessen.”
Trump is expected to speak at the conservative conference called CPAC in Florida for his first post-presidential address, an aide said. His speech will focus on the future of the Republican Party and immigration, the aide said.
During the impeachment trial, Graham emerged as Trump’s top ally in the Senate. He regularly huddled with the lawyers, giving the team feedback from the Senate conference and proposing arguments that might keep certain Republican senators from voting to convict, and calling Trump sometimes multiple times a day, according to Trump advisers.
“He made me feel comfortable,” said David Schoen, one of Trump’s defense attorneys. “He said, ‘Don’t be nervous.’ He was very friendly the entire time.”
Trump initially hired another team of South Carolina lawyers upon Graham’s recommendation but split with them days before the trial. Graham said he wasn’t bothered by the abrupt change.
“Not at all,” he said. “There were too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Now, Graham says, he is intent on talking to Trump about helping the GOP win the Senate and House in 2022. Before heading to Mar-a-Lago this weekend, Graham said he was in Arizona to get an update on the border wall with Mexico, hoping to make one of Trump’s signature issues a 2022 priority.
Still, even as he touted Trump’s sway, Graham acknowledged that the party needs to expand its reach — a tacit acknowledgment of how the former president has polarized the Republican brand.
He said he planned to talk with Trump about how he can help make Republicans more electable, ticking off the very demographic groups alienated by the former president.
“Trump has got to up his game. The Republican Party has to up their game. But I like the way we’re headed,” Graham said. “We’re becoming the working-class party, and his populism is helping us. We just need to get suburban women back. What hurt us was style more than policy. Too much drama. Too much over-the-top. We’ve got to get the independents back.”