Sen. Lindsey Graham flew to Arizona this week for a visit with his best friend John McCain that he thought might be his last.
McCain, who is suffering from brain cancer, had been hospitalized two weeks ago for a stomach infection and was in very bad shape when Graham was with him.
“Last time I saw him, he’d just gotten out of surgery and was really worried about him,” Graham told CNN in an interview Thursday. “He went through some pretty tough surgery in his weakened condition.”
But when Graham returned Monday, he said he was pleasantly surprised by the McCain he found.
“When I got there, [he had] gained weight, [he was] eating good. We watched our favorite western, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,’” the South Carolina Republican said, adding that McCain provided a running commentary that was “R rated,” “but it was fun.”
Not talking about retiring, or funerals
Graham returned to Washington on Thursday clearly determined to tamp down any talk of McCain’s imminent demise. He said McCain did not talk at all about retiring from his Senate seat.
“It’s a tough diagnosis, not going to sugar coat this, but the guy came through the surgery and he’s getting stronger,” said Graham.
“We talked about what we could do this summer. Maybe doing some events, if he gets a little stronger, at the McCain Institute. We were talking about the future. We’re not at 2022 yet, but who knows,” Graham mused.
“We’re not talking about funerals,” Graham said flatly. “I’m going back.”
Cindy McCain shielding her husband
Graham said McCain’s wife, Cindy, is managing the situation in a way that is allowing the Arizona Republican to regain his strength. Part of that means keeping news away from her husband that would upset him, such as reporting about plans for his funeral.
“Cindy has pretty much shielded him from that. She’s pretty upset. We didn’t talk about funerals,” said Graham.
The New York Times first reported over the weekend that McCain associates have told the White House that President Donald Trump is not welcome at McCain’s funeral. NBC News reported that former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have been asked to give eulogies, which CNN confirmed.
Just as other confidants have reported after seeing McCain at his ranch outside Sedona, Arizona, Graham described his friend as reflective and eager to reminisce. The two men have been close for two decades. They’re kindred spirits on national security and their belief in strong American leadership around the world. They have traveled the globe together many times over to meet with foreign leaders and US troops.
“We had some great discussions about all the travels, talking about going to Iraq, and I couldn’t remember who the general was, and he said, ‘Its General Austin,’ and I said, ‘OK, thanks,’” Graham recalled, careful to say their time together was “reflective and forward looking, too.”
“A lot of it was just talking about our relationships,” Graham said.
They also talked a lot about McCain’s new book, which comes out later this month.
“I think this is maybe his most important book,” Graham said. “In the book … he talks about isolationism. I think the biggest threat to world order is American isolationism and the rise of the strong men. I hope people read this book. I think it should be required reading for anybody who wants to serve in a democracy.”
Some of McCain’s longtime aides have been privately irked with Graham for reaching out to Trump and playing golf with him in attempt to forge a working relationship. During the 2016 campaign, Trump doubted McCain’s status as a war hero, saying he believes heroes are those who don’t get captured. McCain was a prisoner of war for five and a half years in Vietnam, and refused early release because it broke with protocol.
McCain downplayed that slight at the time, but he never saw eye to eye with Trump on foreign policy. In fact, McCain spent much of the first six months of Trump’s presidency traveling the world, trying to reassure allies that the US will not abandon them.
When asked if McCain brought up with Graham his courting of Trump, Graham said “no.”
“I think he understands that my job is to help the President. I’m going to help the President, and I’m going to say ‘no’ when I have to,” Graham said.
Though McCain and Graham are historically mostly in lockstep on matters of national security and personnel, the two split Thursday over Trump’s choice to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, because of her CIA experience during the Bush administration, when “enhanced Interrogation,” or torture, was deemed legal for terror suspects.
McCain and Graham publicly fought Bush and his team hard, arguing to outlaw torture. Now, McCain’s arguing to colleagues that Haspel should be disqualified, but Graham said he told McCain he’s wrong.
“Let just put it this way. Here’s what I told John: You won. She said, Ms. Haspel, that the prior program hurt the CIA and the country. She wouldn’t want to go back to it, that torture doesn’t work and she is going to adhere to the law that Senator McCain and I helped author. She’s a 30-year professional, and I think she’s done a good job.”
“When you put it in the big picture, John McCain won,” Graham continued. “The new CIA director-to-be I hope rejects the programs that John McCain fought so hard to change and is going to adhere to the law that John McCain fought too hard to write, and that to me is winning.”