On Saturday, Graham was singing a different tune, pledging support for President Trump in “any effort to move forward regarding the recent vacancy created by the passing of Justice Ginsburg.”
The stark turnabout from 2016 marked the latest chapter in Graham’s dramatic reinvention of himself during the Trump presidency, morphing from an old-school Senate institutionalist and bipartisan dealmaker into a stalwart soldier for the president’s agenda.
And it holds the potential to be one of his most consequential shifts. Graham is chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee charged with processing Supreme Court nominees, and he is in the midst of a competitive reelection campaign that could factor closely into the fight for control of the upper chamber.
His comments Saturday, coming after less-decisive statements in the hours after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death Friday, amounted to the latest indication of how Republican leaders are rallying quickly around a strategy of seeking to fill her seat this year. That prospect has stoked widespread outrage among Senate Democrats, who are calling Republicans hypocrites for the move after blocking President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016 because they said the president chosen by voters that fall should make the pick.
Democrats plotted their next steps privately during a nearly two-hour conference call Saturday, which one participant said reflected differing views in the caucus.
“There’s no doubt everything will be sort of on the table if we’re thrown into a world where you can’t trust somebody’s word and precedents get changed at will to fit your priorities of the moment,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in response to Graham’s decision to align behind Trump and go back on what he said in 2016.
During Saturday’s call, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) used similar language, saying that if Senate Republicans move forward with whoever Trump nominates, “nothing is off the table for next year” should Democrats win control of the chamber. That appeared to be a reference to structural changes to the court proposed by liberal activists such as expanding the number of justices — a proposal that has sparked some disagreements among Democrats.
Republican leaders appeared determined to press ahead swiftly to fill the court vacancy with a conservative jurist. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised Trump during a Friday phone call that his nominee would get a vote in the Senate, according to people familiar with their conversation who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation.
Trump told McConnell he liked Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and Barbara Lagoa of the 11th Circuit, according to two people briefed on the discussion.
“We were put in this position of power and importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices,” Trump wrote on Twitter Saturday. “We have this obligation, without delay!”
If Republican leaders are successful, they could move the court to the right for generations and leave a deep impact on laws governing abortion, guns and other divisive issues.
Less clear is how rank-and-file Republican senators will respond, with many in tough reelection races in states where Trump is not popular. Republicans hold a 53-to-47 majority in the Senate, meaning they can afford to lose no more than three members in a confirmation vote, should the entire Democratic caucus unite against Trump's nominee.
They have already lost one.
“I do not believe that the Senate should vote on the nominee prior to the election,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is in a tough reelection fight, said in a statement. “In fairness to the American people, who will either be re-electing the President or selecting a new one, the decision on a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court should be made by the President who is elected on November 3rd.”
Collins’s reservations contrasted sharply with the comments from Graham, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate. The contest has been tougher than many expected in a ruby-red state Trump won easily in 2016, with recent polls showing Democrat Jaime Harrison in close competition with Graham.
Now Graham will be at the center of what will likely be one of the most contentious confirmation battles in history, affording him an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Trump. But some Democrats say his position could help amplify the arguments against his reelection.
“A lot of folks miss the Lindsey of old — and that’s why this race is so competitive,” said Steve Benjamin, the Democratic mayor of Columbia, S.C. “When it comes time to do what’s right and maybe not popular,” Benjamin said, “it can be difficult for some.”
Harrison, one of his party's fast-rising African American stars, sounded similar notes. “My grandpa always said that a man is only as good as his word. Senator Graham, you have proven your word is worthless,” he wrote on Twitter.
Graham tried to spin the situation to his advantage with a tweet of his own.
“Harrison will be a loyal foot soldier in the cause of the radical liberals to destroy America as we know it,” Graham wrote on Twitter.
Aides to Graham and Harrison declined interview requests for the candidates.
In the pre-Trump era, Graham showed a willingness to work with Democrats and was seen across the aisle as an effective partner on legislative and judicial showdowns. He voted for both of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, drawing blowback from conservative activists for doing so. In 2005 he was part of the bipartisan Gang of 14 that resolved tensions surrounding President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.
On Saturday, Graham faced intense criticism on social media as video clips of his 2016 comments about using his words against him were widely circulated. At the time of his comments, Graham was trying to make a point: Yes, he had joined the Republican move to block Obama from installing a Supreme Court justice during his final year in office. No, he didn’t take that decision lightly. Nor should anyone, because of the precedent it would set.
As recently as October 2018, Graham held the same position. “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process has started, we’ll wait till the next election,” he said at the Atlantic Festival.
Graham ran for president against Trump in 2016, dropping out of the GOP primary after gaining little traction and clashing often with Trump. He called Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” on CNN in 2015. As a hostile gesture, Trump read Graham’s phone number aloud at an event in July of that year.
But once Trump ascended in the party and was elected president, Graham was suddenly singing his praises and playing golf with him. “I fully understand where President @realDonaldTrump is coming from,” he wrote Saturday in a tweet responding to Trump advocating a swift move toward confirming a new justice.
Graham also pointed on social media to recent comments in which he said he was prepared to move ahead with a Supreme Court nominee this year. “After Kavanaugh, the rules have changed as far as I’m concerned,” he told reporters in August, according to NBC News, citing the contentious battle over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
Graham’s loyalty to Trump has spared him the political headaches outspoken GOP Trump critics have received during the past four years. Former Senate colleagues Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) retired rather than seek another term, with Trump eager to dislodge them over their disapproving comments.
But Graham’s positioning has not come without costs, particularly in suburban areas in South Carolina where Trump’s support has eroded — prompting Graham to seek some political distance from the president. Graham allies believe that the court fight will energize conservatives and accrue to his political benefit, particularly with him playing a key role.
“The trade-off for Trump’s unorthodoxy has always been that he will support conservative judges,” said Matt Moore, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman and consultant for the Graham campaign. “The president's nominee has the potential to really animate the Republican Party base in South Carolina.”
Democratic senators who spoke on Saturday's conference call acknowledged the ferocious pressure they are likely to face from their own base to fight Trump's pick, but stressed to the group that they had to be strategic in their tactics. Some senators urged caution, as some activists already push the Senate to wage an all-out war to obstruct Senate business by blocking the upcoming stopgap funding measure that must pass before the end of this month to keep the government open.
Schumer told his ranks that voters may not automatically understand why the new vacancy matters. He urged Democratic senators to spend the next couple of weeks explaining the stakes, including implications for health care, abortion rights and campaign finance.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the party’s vice-presidential nominee and a member of the Judiciary Committee, was greeted with applause, whistles and cheers on the call after Schumer introduced her. She stressed to senators that the Supreme Court would be a major issue for the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Although the Democrats can’t successfully block a vote on a court nominee, they can deploy procedural maneuvers to drag out the overall confirmation process. A thorough Supreme Court confirmation fight in the modern era is not short. On average, candidates to the court have taken nearly 70 days from the date of nomination to confirmation, according to the Congressional Research Service.
It was clear on Saturday that partisan rancor that has seized the Senate in recent years was only likely to intensify in the wake of the court vacancy. After a civil rights lawyer tweeted Graham’s 2016 quote inviting senators to use his rhetoric against him, one responded with a single word.
“Done,” wrote Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).