Chapter One: Graham’s Moral Clarity
TRUMP ANNOUNCED his presidential campaign in June 2015. Right away, Graham recognized how dangerous he was.
Trump had long peddled the myth that President Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya. In his announcement speech, Trump implied that most Mexican immigrants were rapists or drug mules.
Graham assessed the New York businessman as “hateful,” a “kook,” a “demagogue,” and a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” who “represents the worst in America.” He identified patterns of behavior that made Trump a menace to the nation: belligerence, ruthlessness, indifference to facts, and a penchant for targeting minorities.
Graham: He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot. He doesn’t represent my party.
But Trump wasn’t just a demagogue. He called for authoritarian measures. Graham condemned each of them.
Stealing oil from U.S.-occupied countries. On August 16, 2015, Trump said American troops should “take over the oil” in Iraq and use the profits to “take back money for our soldiers.”
Graham denounced this idea as theft. “Is that what we are coming down to?” he asked. “To say we are going to send an American ground force back to Iraq to get their oil? . . . Is that who we are as Americans now?”
Deporting American citizens. Trump demanded the mass expulsion of illegal immigrants. On August 24, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked him whether he would deport a hypothetical Los Angeles family in which the parents were undocumented but the children were “American citizens, born here.” Trump said he would.
Graham called Trump’s position “Joseph McCarthy-like.” He pointed out that “deporting American citizens, children of illegal immigrants, is unconstitutional.”
Summary execution. On October 8, Trump said Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who was under investigation for possible desertion but had yet to be charged, “should have been executed.”
Graham protested that Trump, with lethal intent, was proposing to “deny due process.”
Banning Muslims. On November 19, Trump endorsed surveillance of Muslims in the United States. Graham rebuked him, explaining that “it’s not constitutional to follow someone because of their faith.” He warned that Trump was fomenting sectarian persecution. As an illustration, Graham pointed to a Virginia mayor’s suggestion that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II could be a model for dealing with Syrian refugees.
“I’m running for president of the United States, where you can come and worship God your way or not at all,” said Graham. “There’s 3,500 American Muslims in uniform. . . . What are they fighting for as American Muslims? The same freedoms that you and I enjoy. God bless them.”
On December 7, Trump called for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Graham, in response, accused Trump of “playing on prejudice.” “Every candidate for president needs to do the right thing & condemn @Realdonaldtrump’s statement,” Graham tweeted.
Retributive torture. On November 23, Trump said detainees accused of terrorism should be waterboarded even if their suffering elicited no information. “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway,” said Trump. In a debate on February 6, 2016, he repeated: “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
After the debate, Graham disavowed Trump’s remarks. “We don’t torture people,” he said. “That makes us better.”
Targeting noncombatants. In December 2015, Trump said he would “take out” terrorists’ family members, threaten the “lives” of those family members, or make them “suffer.” He said he would do this intentionally, not just as collateral damage (in a strike aimed at the terrorists themselves) or during interrogations to avert an imminent attack, but as “retribution” and a deterrent.
Later, when Trump was advised that the military might refuse such orders because they were illegal, he shot back: “They’re not going to refuse me. . . . If I say, ‘Do it,’ they’re going to do it.”
Graham was appalled. He protested that Trump would “kill . . . innocent people” and make the United States “barbaric like our enemies.” In March and April 2016, Graham threatened not to support Trump in a general election, in part because Trump might “order our troops to commit war crimes.”
[A printable PDF of this project is available here and a Kindle edition is here.]
Graham didn’t just repudiate Trump’s savagery. He castigated the Republican National Committee and other Republican presidential candidates for failing to join in the repudiation.
“Where is the party leadership?” Graham demanded in August 2015, as Trump promoted bigotry, oil theft, and violations of the Constitution. “Where are the other candidates?” Months later, Graham complained that the candidates were “eerily silent” about Trump’s proposed Muslim ban.
In Graham’s view, the silence was dangerous for three reasons.
Appeasement encourages the aggressor. As Trump preached barbarism and surged in the primaries, Graham heaped scorn on Republican leaders who “hid in the corner, because they were worried about the consequences of taking on the bully.” Yielding to the bully would only embolden the bully.
Appeasement corrupts the appeasers. At a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, three days after Trump proposed the Muslim ban, Graham told Republicans that if the GOP failed to stand up to this demagogue, it would lose its reason for existence. “I’m not afraid of him leaving,” Graham said of Trump’s threat to bolt the party. “You know what I’m afraid of? That we’re afraid of him leaving.”
“Let your fear go, folks, as Republicans,” Graham told the Portsmouth audience. “Stand up for what makes us great. Tell Donald Trump, ‘You’re wrong.’ Don’t be afraid of him leaving and losing an election. I’m not afraid of losing an election. I’m afraid of losing our soul.”
Appeasement empowers the mob. The menace on the horizon wasn’t just Trump. It was Trump’s voters. Behind the authoritarian was an audience that loved his brashness, his bigotry, and his contempt for rules. Republican leaders were tiptoeing around Trump to avoid alienating those voters.
Graham didn’t want to cater to these people. In September 2015, he lamented that Trump had “consolidated all the Republicans who think Obama’s a Muslim and that he was born in Kenya.” “I’m going for the other crowd,” said Graham.
Two weeks later, at a Trump rally, a man in the audience claimed that Obama was a Muslim and “not even an American.” Trump, instead of correcting the man, played along. Graham was mortified. “We’re looking for a leader who will push back at this kind of hateful stuff,” he pleaded. “Don’t be afraid of losing a vote.”
As other candidates placated Trump and courted his voters, Graham berated them. In December, Cruz declined to condemn Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, and he offered his own plan to suspend entry of Middle Eastern refugees. Graham, in disgust, accused Cruz of “trying to get all the Trump people when Trump falls.”
“This is not a policy debate, Ted,” said Graham. “This is about you and us and our character as a party.”
One moment is particularly haunting. It was March 7, 2016, after a string of primaries had essentially winnowed the race to Trump and Cruz. Graham, who had suspended his own campaign months earlier, was on CNN, imploring Republicans of good will to unite against Trump. In addition to Trump’s “race baiting” and “religious bigotry,” the senator reminded viewers that Trump had “said he would order our soldiers to kill innocent children, civilian noncombatants.”
In the interview, Graham acknowledged that his party’s sickness went deeper than Trump. He estimated that 35 percent to 40 percent of Republicans felt “the world that they knew growing up is being lost. They feel like the Mexicans are taking their jobs. . . . There’s a market out there for ‘Send them all back.’” Trump was gaining strength, Graham explained, because he knew how to “prey on people’s fear.”
Republican leaders could have intervened to stop Trump, but they hadn’t. “When he said most illegal immigrants are rapists and drug dealers . . . looking back, we should have basically kicked him out of the party,” said Graham. Instead, the party’s elders and rival presidential candidates had “hid in the corner,” allowing the menace to “grow.”
Graham: Looking back, we should have basically kicked him out of the party.
That was a fatal mistake, said Graham. “Any time you ignore what could be an evil force, you wind up regretting it.”
Graham thought he was talking about the past. He didn’t realize that he was describing the future.
Of Losing and Winning
HOW DID A SENATOR who clearly understood every element of the oncoming disaster—Trump, his angry fan base, and the timidity of the Republican elite—become part of the evil that followed? The first piece of the answer is that Graham, like many other Republicans who initially opposed Trump, had made a political calculation. And that calculation turned out to be wrong.
In TV appearances, Graham often said he would “rather lose without Trump than try to win with him.” That sounded brave. But Graham didn’t really believe Trump could win. He didn’t think he might need to suck up to Trump, because he assumed that the businessman-candidate was so toxic—in particular, so abrasive to women and to Hispanic voters—that even if he managed to win the nomination, he would lose badly in a general election.
So in 2015 and early 2016, Graham found it relatively easy to speak out against Trump. He didn’t think he had much to lose. His courage hadn’t been tested.
In May 2016, that began to change.
On the morning of May 3, the day of the Indiana primary, Trump went on Fox News and falsely suggested that Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The smear vindicated everything Graham had said about Trump. “Any doubt left Trump is completely unhinged?” Graham asked on Twitter. “His assertion Ted Cruz’s father was associated with Lee Harvey Oswald should remove ALL doubt.”
That night, as the returns came in from Indiana, it became clear that Trump had beaten Cruz soundly. Cruz dropped out of the race, leaving Trump as the presumptive nominee.
This was a turning point in Trump’s rise to power. By capturing the nomination, he established himself as the sole alternative to the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. And that step, in turn, gave every Republican politician a stake in his candidacy. With Trump at the head of the ticket, the party’s hopes of holding the House and Senate hinged on how well he performed against Clinton.
Up to this point, Graham and other Republican critics of Trump had depicted his slurs, outbursts, and despotic ideas as evidence of his unfitness for office. Now they had an incentive to reformulate their criticisms as advice. Instead of rejecting him as an unacceptable leader, they would ask him to stop saying unacceptable things.
Initially, Graham resisted this pivot. In a CNN interview on May 6 and a formal statement on May 9, he repeated that he couldn’t “in good conscience support” the presumptive nominee, since Trump hadn’t “displayed the judgment and temperament to serve as Commander in Chief.”
But Graham’s refusal came with a caveat. If Trump were to beat Clinton—if he were to become president—Graham would set aside his misgivings.
“Do you think he has any ability to prove you wrong?” CNN’s Dana Bash asked Graham.
“Yes,” said Graham. “He can win.”
On May 11, five days after that interview, Trump phoned Graham. He chatted him up and asked for advice on national security. Graham loved it. This was what the senator had hoped for. If he couldn’t be president, he wanted to shape the president’s foreign policy.
Almost immediately, Graham began to change the way he talked about Trump. On May 12, he praised the presumptive nominee for asking “good questions” and for “reaching out to many people . . . a wise move on his part.” Graham said he had enjoyed their conversation, and he credited Trump with a “great sense of humor.”
On May 20, Graham returned to CNN. He thanked Trump for calling “to pick my brain,” and he did something that would soon become a routine practice for establishment Republicans: advising Trump through the TV. Everyone knew Trump watched cable news, so Graham spoke directly to him. “Here is what I would say to Mr. Trump,” said Graham, addressing the situation in Syria. On North Korea, the senator counseled: “I would focus on China.” On Iraq: “Here’s what I would tell Mr. Trump.”
The interviewer, CNN’s Kate Bolduan, noted the change in Graham’s demeanor. “Are you warming to Donald Trump?” she asked.
“Well, I’ll talk to him,” said Graham. “We have major differences. . . . But he’s got a 50/50 chance of being president.”
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Graham was starting to let go of his resistance to Trump. It wasn’t just because of Trump’s flattery. Graham also had practical reasons. He wanted Republicans to keep control of Congress. And he hoped that if Trump won, he could build a relationship with the new president and influence the administration’s foreign policy.
But Graham didn’t want to think of himself as a sellout. He didn’t want to think he was abandoning the principles he had articulated in opposition to Trump. He wanted to believe that for some good reason, those principles no longer applied.
And so, in the days after his phone call with Trump, Graham began to formulate a rationale for accepting the authoritarian candidate.
The rationale was democracy.
WHEN PEOPLE ASK HOW an aspiring authoritarian gained power in the United States, they often assume that our democratic system or democratic culture should have thwarted him. But just the opposite happened. America’s self-image as a strong, rational democracy contributed, paradoxically, to Trump’s ascent. Within the Republican party, his success in polls and primaries earned him respect as the people’s candidate. And that gave politicians like Graham an excuse to bend the knee.
In the first weeks of Trump’s campaign, Graham predicted that the newcomer would lose because Americans, and Republicans in particular, were too good to elect such a scoundrel.
“I believe in democracy,” Graham declared at a forum in Iowa on July 18, 2015. He said Trump would lose because “the good people of Iowa, the good people of New Hampshire, and the good people of South Carolina are going to figure this out.”
“He will fade over time,” Graham said of Trump on July 22, 2015. “I have a lot of confidence in the Republican party.” Even if Trump were to win the nomination, the senator ventured, “There’s no way he could win a national election . . . because America is a good place.”
“There have been people in the past who have been demagogues that prey on the weak, the different, that appeal to our prejudices,” Graham observed in another July 22 interview. “Let me tell you how it always ends: The demagogue loses. Because this is America.”
None of those predictions came true. Trump didn’t fade. He captured the nomination. The “good people” of South Carolina—Lindsey Graham’s base—voted for Trump in that state’s Republican primary.
Clearly, Graham had miscalculated. Maybe the voters were wrong. Maybe America wasn’t always a good place. Maybe sometimes the demagogue won.
But to face that possibility, Graham would have to rethink everything. He would have to oppose the Republican ticket. He would have to reconsider his role in the party. He would have to defy the voters of his own state.
So instead, he turned the other way. He told himself that democracy had worked. The good and wise Republicans of South Carolina and other states had chosen Trump, not Graham. They must have known better than Graham did. And if the good people of America went on to elect Trump, then Graham would accept their judgment. He wouldn’t just tolerate their decision; he would embrace it. He would defer to the people’s verdict. He would withdraw his criticisms of Trump.
Did Graham really believe this? Did he honestly think that the voters knew best and that their ballots somehow cleansed Trump? Probably not. But that was the rationale Graham began to articulate in public. And over time, he increasingly behaved as though he did believe it. That’s how rationales often work. You espouse them—at first uncertainly or insincerely, later with conviction—because you need them to justify what you’ve done or what you want to do.
That’s what Graham did as he turned toward Trump. On May 20, when Bolduan asked Graham if he was warming to Trump, Graham pointed out that Trump “did an amazing thing. He beat me and, you know, 16 other people.” And when Bolduan asked whether Trump was unqualified to be president, Graham no longer responded in the affirmative. “That’s up to the American people,” he told her.
In the name of respecting the people’s will, Graham renounced his right to judge the man who had earned his party’s nomination. He pleaded that it was “uncomfortable to say that somebody’s not qualified, who beat you.”
Through the summer and fall of 2016, Trump continued to lash out at minorities, the democratic process, and the rule of law. In June, he claimed that Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge born in the United States, should be barred from presiding over a Trump-related lawsuit because the judge’s “heritage” presented “an inherent conflict of interest.” Trump explained: “We’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.”
Trump also said a Muslim judge might be ineligible to preside over the case. A few days later, after a terrorist shooting in Orlando, he denounced immigration from “Muslim countries” and repeated his call for “the ban.” In July, he falsely suggested that Khizr Khan, the father of an American soldier who had died serving in Iraq, had prevented his wife from speaking at the Democratic convention because their family was Muslim.
In rallies, interviews, and debates, Trump told his followers that American democracy was a sham and that if he were to lose, the outcome would be illegitimate. In August, he predicted that the “election is going to be rigged.” He asserted that if Clinton were to win Pennsylvania, it would mean that Democrats had “cheated.” In September, he refused to say that he would accept Clinton as president. In October, he accused the Obama administration of letting illegal immigrants “pour into the country so they can go and vote.” He repeated that “the election is absolutely being rigged . . . at many polling places,” and he refused to pledge that he would accept the results, claiming that “millions of people that are registered to vote . . . shouldn’t be registered.”
When reporters pressed Graham about Trump’s eruptions, the senator expressed his disapproval. But he no longer portrayed these episodes as evidence of Trump’s unfitness. Instead, he described them as politically unhelpful, and he urged Trump to revise them or at least not to repeat them.
When Trump called for a crackdown on Muslim immigration after the Orlando shooting, Graham nudged him to “get back on track.” When Trump smeared the Khans, Graham counseled him to move on. “If you really want to be president . . . this is the best chance you’ll ever get,” Graham told the nominee via a CNN interview. “Every day that we talk about Mr. Khan and Donald Trump, it’s bad for Trump.”
Graham still recognized Trump as an authoritarian. On June 7, he acknowledged that Trump’s attacks on Curiel were “not consistent with a rule-of-law nation.” But nine days later—after Trump had repeated his call for “the ban” on travel from Muslim countries—Graham told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that his main concern was keeping Trump on message so Republicans could hold Congress. “I think the Senate is 50/50 if Trump can keep it close,” said Graham.
Graham no longer focused on protecting America from Trump. Instead, he focused on protecting the GOP’s electoral prospects, which in turn meant protecting Trump from himself. In 2015, Graham had sought to expose Trump’s autocratic personality; now he tried to hide it.
In addition, Graham no longer saw Trump’s resilience—his ability to rise in polls despite one damning statement or revelation after another—as a troubling sign. Instead, he saw the nominee’s indestructibility as an asset.
“Trump is getting better,” Graham boasted as Trump closed the gap with Clinton in early September. “You can see a more disciplined message. . . . He’s had massive political body blows that would knock anybody else out.” If Trump could just “hold it together for another eight weeks,” said Graham, “you’re going to have one hell of a race.” Two weeks later, he urged Trump to “take it to her. . . . If you win, Donald, I’ll help you where I can.”
In the final weeks, Trump absorbed more blows, including the release of an Access Hollywood video that showed him bragging about groping women. But WikiLeaks, using material hacked by the Russian government, came to his aid by leaking emails to embarrass Clinton. When Trump, in his final debate with Clinton, refused to pledge that he would accept the election’s outcome, Graham complained that the nominee was “doing the party and country a great disservice.” It was a telling construction: party first, country second. What worried Graham most was that Trump’s attacks on democracy might cost the GOP a victory.
They didn’t. On election night, Graham watched in amazement as Trump beat Clinton. Better yet, Republicans kept the House and Senate. The party’s work to prop up Trump had paid off. He was going to be president.
And Graham was going to become his best friend in Congress. It was time to get to work.
[A printable PDF of this project is available here and a Kindle edition is here.]
→NEXT: Chapter Two: A Trump’s Best Friend