Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is stuck once again between a President whose support he needs to win re-election and his lifelong friendship with the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, who encouraged all to put country first.
But time and political necessity have softened Graham’s public grievances with President Donald Trump. The presidential embrace has been months in the making. Beginning with golf outings with Trump, Graham now frequently takes calls from the President.
In recent months, the South Carolinian has become a close Trump confidant on Capitol Hill, an alliance that has afforded him broad influence over the GOP conference and the White House, but at times tested his ability to defend his friend McCain from Trump’s harsh attacks.
During Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation battle, Graham snapped at his Democratic colleagues for what he said was the biggest “unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” a moment that was largely seen as a public opportunity to side with Trump in a battle that had divided Republicans behind the scenes.
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted his latest gripe against McCain, who died in August, referring to the controversial dossier that has become one of Trump’s longest-held grudges against the former Arizona senator.
“Spreading the fake and totally discredited Dossier ‘is unfortunately a very dark stain against John McCain,’” Trump tweeted, quoting Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated then-President Bill Clinton.
On Sunday, Graham tweeted: “As to @SenJohnMcCain and his devotion to his country: He stepped forward to risk his life for his country, served honorably under difficult circumstances, and was one of the most consequential senators in the history of the body. Nothing about his service will ever be changed or diminished.”
The tepid defense is a departure from the early days of Trump’s presidency when Graham was often a voice of condemnation for the President’s hardline immigration policies, his posture toward Russia or rash military decisions. Trump had his own choice words for Graham as well, calling Graham a “nut job” and “one of the dumbest human beings I have ever seen.”
Trump also once publicly offered Graham’s cell phone up. Graham responded in kind with a video of him destroying a cellphone with a golf club, blender, chef’s knife, toaster oven and fire.
But Graham’s political allegiance to Trump isn’t without its rewards these days. Later this month, Vice President Mike Pence will appear with Graham as the senator launches his re-election bid in South Carolina, a state that still widely embraces Trump and his brand of conservatism.
Graham, on the cusp of his fourth Senate term, is well aware of Trump’s popularity in his home state. South Carolina’s Republican base provides little wiggle room to condemn or criticize Trump on even some of the GOP’s longest-held ideals. In October, Graham told CNN during a visit to South Carolina “most people in that room want me to stay close to the President.”
“I am honored to have Vice President Pence travel to South Carolina to support my campaign,” Graham said in a statement. “The vice president has been a strong ally and close friend in the efforts to confirm conservative judges like Brett Kavanaugh, strengthen our southern border, cut taxes and rebuild our military.”
It’s a far cry from the vocal and dissident Graham of more than a year ago, a senator who ran against Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, called him a “jackass” and referred to Trump’s response to McCain’s death as “disturbing.”
Still, Graham shuns the idea that he has changed.
“What happened to me?” Graham asked at an appearance in Greenville, according to The New York Times. “Not a damn thing.”
CNN’s Manu Raju, Caroline Kenny and Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.