Has a politician ever debased himself more in public than when Lindsey Graham eulogized his friend John McCain? Bleary-eyed from grief, the senior senator from South Carolina took his place at the lectern on the Senate floor and insisted on his own inferiority. He was the Great Man’s mascot, his funny little buddy — his “wingman,” he said — lucky to have walked in his shadow and blessed to have been loved by him. McCain, who used pejoratives as endearments, called Graham “Little Jerk.” Recalling this, Graham looked up from his notes, seeming to be considering its meaning for the first time. “You’ve all got your names,” he said darkly. “And you earned them like I did.”
It is tempting to imagine that in that moment, Graham was reflecting on all the ways he had betrayed his friend. McCain hated Trump with all his tenacious strength and banned him from his own funeral, yet as McCain lay dying, Graham went golfing with the president. Later he helped wangle an invitation to the funeral for Ivanka and Jared.
McCain hated Putin, too — “an evil man [who] is intent on evil deeds,” he wrote before his death — and, as a senator, devoted himself single-mindedly to preserving American hegemony abroad.
Yet a couple of days before McCain died, Graham was on Fox, giving Trump cover for potentially firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the midterms — a move that could have catastrophic political and constitutional effects should a more malleable AG find a way to end or curb the Mueller probe. Earlier this month, Graham clarified his position again, saying any new AG nominee would have to protect the investigation.
This waffling, from a politician who has always presented himself as a stalwart protector of the rule of law, made Democrats who had imagined in him a conscience or a plausible rebel turn away in despair. Even some of Graham’s erstwhile friends in the GOP reminded him of what he’d said just last year, that if Trump fired Sessions, “there would be holy hell to pay.” Bill Kristol, the conservative pundit and former ally of Graham’s, shamed him on Twitter: “History will record that @LindseyGrahamSC went out of his way to court favor with Donald Trump at precisely the moment … his enablers needed to hear a message of resistance.”
Before the Senate, the man who answered to “Little Jerk” wept. Was he talking to the nation or to himself when he added this: “It’s going to be a lonely journey for me for a while. Don’t look to me to replace this man.”
During the 2016 election, Graham was defined by his loathing for Trump. The number of Republicans are legion who once promised to stand up to him but have failed to do so — worse, have capitulated to his vanity and turned a blind eye to his corruption. But of all the turncoats and double-talkers on Capitol Hill, there is no more vivid example than Graham, who during the campaign drew the brightest of lines, calling Trump a “kook,” a “jackass,” “a race-baiting bigot,” and “the most flawed nominee in the history of the Republican Party.”
The brawl between Graham and Trump was more than political theater: It was personal. First Trump insulted McCain, denigrating his heroism in Vietnam. Then he gave out Graham’s personal cell-phone number on TV. His foul language, his lack of intelligible policy positions, his isolationism, his disregard for the Constitution and the traditions of government — all this infuriated Graham, and during Inauguration Week, he and McCain were seen in the offices of the Senate building plotting to lead a brave Republican resistance. “They were off the charts,” says someone who encountered them then. “Explosive.”
But as the presidency wore on, of course, Graham’s path diverged from McCain’s. After a few short months of détente, mutual friends of Graham and the president, including some GOP bigwigs connected with Fox, prevailed on them to have a make-up lunch. What went down that day in March 2017 was no rehashing of past hurts or any quid pro quo but a bunch of joke telling. There, Graham and Trump discovered their mutual love for bro-ish trash talk and golf. “I think Lindsey likes the president a lot more than he thought he would,” says Steve Largent, the former NFL player who became close with Graham when they were freshmen in the House. But more, “I think Lindsey feels a little bit like the adult in the room, speaking with the president. I’m saying this — Lindsey has never said this to me — but there’s something about, I’m not going to say innocence, but the president’s affability as well as his naïveté that Lindsey is drawn to.”
It was at this juncture, according to someone familiar with his thinking, that Graham made the strategic decision to publicly flatter Trump. Occasionally, maintaining some profile of independence, he would push back — always in defense of his friend McCain, or when the president called certain countries “shitholes,” or when he threatened to pull troops from Syria. But in general, it made no sense to stand on principle only to draw Trump’s petty wrath — and risk getting fired in the next cycle by hard-liners back home. Better, Graham thought, to praise him in public in order to influence him in private. Graham understood that “all Trump really cares about is being celebrated,” this person said. By genuflecting to Trump, Graham could seem to be in collaboration with him — the impression probably most important to the president — and “move mountains behind closed doors.”
The public romance between Graham and Trump flourished during the summer and fall of 2017, amid golf games and Twitter compliments. McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer in July, and late that month, in an act of virtue or maybe vengeance, he cast the decisive vote to preserve the Affordable Care Act, while Graham voted with his party to scuttle it. McCain loyalists argued privately with Graham, but when CNN asked him about it, Graham grew defiant, insisting that his bond with McCain transcended any vote. “John McCain was willing to die for this country” — here his voice broke and his eyes welled up — “he can vote however he wants to, and it doesn’t matter to me in terms of friendship.”