In making the case to CNN's Dana Bash that Trump isn't well served by his own administration, Graham is apparently trying to circumvent the White House to appeal to the President himself as Congress nears a shutdown due, in part, to disagreements about immigration.
"There are people in the White House who are outliers," the South Carolina Republican said in an exclusive interview. "There are people around the President who have an irrational view of immigration. They always have, and if you follow that lead we'll never get anywhere."
Last week, Graham presented a bipartisan immigration deal to the White House alongside Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois. Trump rejected the deal. Durbin this week said "any attempt to kill immigration reform probably has (White House senior adviser Stephen) Miller's fingerprints on it." Miller, who was at the deal's presentation at the White House, and is one of the administration's most conservative members on immigration.
Earlier this week, Graham told reporters
that Trump was "not well served by his staff" on the immigration debate. Asked about chief of staff John Kelly specifically, Graham called him a good man but noted that he is a member of the staff, and added that some at the White House have "an irrational view."
Trump's a closer -- but Kelly isn't, Graham suggested in his interview with Bash.
"On immigration, I've been dealing with it for about 10 years. I know where the bandwidth exists. ... There's still some room," Graham said, later adding, "I don't think John Kelly's irrational. I think he's never closed a deal before."
"The Democrats have to have leverage for the rest of the 11 million (undocumented immigrants). If they give us all we want on border and go to merit-based immigration, why would they expect us to deal with the rest of the 11 million illegal immigrants?" he asked.
Durbin has asserted that Trump referred to certain African nations as "shithole countries" while discussing the deal at the White House. Graham said that despite the remark, Trump is not a racist, but rather, reacts aggressively toward people who aren't nice to him.
"He's a street fighter," Graham said. "It's not the color of your skin that matters. It's not the content of your character. It's whether or not you show him respect and like him. And if he feels like you're off script, that you don't like him, he punches back."
Graham, appearing to appeal directly to Trump, called for him to be a leader.
"We need a leader, and you got here by being a street fighter. You beat me, you beat everybody else, and Mr. President, you have the ability to bring this country together," he said.
Earlier this week, Graham also issued a direct plea
to the President during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
"If the President is watching, I'm still in the phone book. So don't give my number out, but call me," Graham said, adding that "this has turned into an s-show, and we need to get back to being a great country, where Democrats and Republicans can work together to do something that we should have done years ago."
Pressed for details by Bash about last week's immigration meeting, Graham would not budge.
"I want to make sure that I can keep talking to the President. I told him what I thought, and that's more important than anything else," Graham said.
Despite the immigration disagreements, Graham said he not part of the "resist camp" against Trump.
"I respect the fact that he won the office and I'm not in the resist camp. I'm not going to tell him everything he wants to hear. I'm going to be me and at the end of the day, I want to help this President because I owe it to the people of South Carolina and to the country," he said.