Chapter Two: A Trump’s Best Friend
ON NOVEMBER 17, 2016, A WEEK AFTER Trump’s election, Graham went on TV to start sucking up. He had congratulated the president-elect; now he wanted to build a relationship. “I’m in the book. Call me if you need me,” Graham told Trump through the CNN camera.
Sucking up to a new president was normal. But sucking up to this president would be different. Already, Trump had indicated that he would make his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a power broker in the government. It was the kind of thing monarchs and dictators did. But Graham, when he was asked about it, chose not to quibble. “I am all for it,” the senator told CNN. “I’m all for him [Kushner] being able to help President Trump in any fashion the president deems appropriate.”
Any fashion the president deems appropriate. Graham wasn’t just endorsing the arrangement. He was signaling that Trump could do as he pleased.
But Graham wasn’t offering his fealty for nothing. He had a worthy purpose in mind.
When critics write about the GOP’s capitulation to Trump, they tend to dismiss the capitulators as hollow careerists. In some cases, that’s true. But even people with strong commitments and good intentions can end up collaborating with an authoritarian.
Graham, for instance, cared intensely about national security and foreign policy. That gave Trump enormous leverage over him, because on those subjects, the president had almost total control.
Trump was an isolationist. Graham was an internationalist. He hoped to persuade Trump to keep troops in Syria, support NATO, and stand up to Russia. It would be a huge undertaking and a constant struggle.
In studying Graham’s transformation, this was one of the most striking things I found: In moments when Graham was most fiercely defending Trump’s abuses of power, he was simultaneously lobbying Trump to adopt, or at least not to abandon, hawkish foreign policies. At times, the senator all but admitted that he viewed this as a transaction.
Graham wanted the United States to stand up to tyrants abroad. And to achieve that, he was willing to compromise the rule of law at home.
The other thing you have to understand about Graham—and about many other Republicans who initially seemed too sensible to yield to Trump—is that they fell for the president-elect’s buffoonery.
Cynics sometimes say that American democracy survived Trump’s presidency because unlike successful autocrats in other countries, he was too stupid and self-absorbed to gain absolute power. That might be true. But in seducing Republican elders, Trump’s stupidity was an asset.
Graham and many of his colleagues knew Trump was a brute. But they also knew he was an idiot, and this gave them a false sense of security. They thought he was too inept to endanger the republic.
The Republicans who made pilgrimages to Trump Tower after the 2016 election, and who later paid their respects at the White House, didn’t see themselves as Trump’s pawns. They thought they were manipulating him. And this illusion of control blinded them to the force he gradually exerted over them.
Graham, without realizing it, had a useful term for this Trumpian force. The term was “orbit.”
To Graham, being in Trump’s orbit meant access. In a 2019 interview with New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich, the senator would use this term to describe how he had plotted his approach to Trump. “I went from, ‘OK, he’s president’ to ‘How can I get to be in his orbit?’” Graham explained. Then, over time, Graham had worked his way into Trump’s “smaller orbit.”
Graham described this process as though he were maneuvering a spacecraft. But orbits are tricky. Once you’re in orbit, you no longer control your trajectory. You’re in the grip of the object you’re orbiting. And it can be hard to escape.
[A printable PDF of this project is available here and a Kindle edition is here.]
In the early days of 2017, Graham began to work his way into Trump’s circle. He flattered the incoming president and abased himself. “Donald, you beat me like a drum,” he told Trump in a Fox News interview. “We’re going to make America great again.”
Backstage, Graham reached out to Kushner. By March, he was lunching with Trump, exchanging jokes, and offering advice on Iran and North Korea. “I’m humbled by being beat, and I accept your victory,” he told the president. He would later recall telling Trump, during this conversation, “I am all in for you.”
Over the next several weeks, their relationship grew: dinners, long phone calls, and eventually golf. Under Graham’s influence, Trump’s foreign policy became more assertive. But at home, Trump was incorrigible. He continued to attack human rights and democratic institutions. Graham, despite his concerns, offered only entreaties and half-hearted attempts to coach the president.
Here’s some of what Trump did in the months after his election:
He alleged massive voter fraud. In late November 2016, Trump claimed that millions of illegal ballots had robbed him of victory in the popular vote. (He had won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots.) Trump repeated this falsehood in his first days in office.
No previous president had so wildly slandered American democracy. But Graham responded only with political advice. “Watch what you say,” he counseled Trump, or “you’re going to shake confidence in your ability to lead the country.”
He refused to acknowledge foreign interference. In December 2016, when U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf, Trump rejected their findings and attacked the agencies. Graham recognized Trump’s reaction as pathological: Trump viewed any talk of foreign interference as an attack on him, and he couldn’t distinguish the national interest from his personal interest. This made him mentally incapable of confronting Russia over anti-American operations that were designed to help Trump politically.
But Graham didn’t want to antagonize Trump. So in January, he credited the president-elect with “progress” toward acknowledging what Russia had done. And in March, he pleaded on behalf of the intelligence agencies: “I would beg the president to recognize them as the heroes they are.”
He defended torture. On January 25, five days into his presidency, Trump reaffirmed his support for torture. ISIS was “chopping off the heads of our people,” he fumed, and “we have to fight fire with fire.” But two days later, he grudgingly agreed to defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who opposed waterboarding.
Graham decided that was good enough. He set aside the moral question, on which Trump was unrepentant, and applauded the president for yielding to Mattis’s position that “torture, including waterboarding, is not an effective tool for obtaining information.”
He attacked the press. On February 17, Trump called the “FAKE NEWS media” “the enemy of the American people.” Graham disagreed, but he brushed off Trump’s menacing language, and he said the president had a point. “America is not becoming a dictatorship,” Graham scoffed when he was asked about Trump’s statement. He added, “I would say this to the American press corps: When it comes to Trump, you are over the top. You are acting more like an opposition party.”
He claimed that his predecessor had wiretapped him. On March 4, Trump accused Obama of “tapping my phones in October, just prior to [the] Election.” Trump’s allegation was bizarre and false, but Graham dismissed it as a side issue. When the senator was asked whether Trump should apologize, he ducked. “That’s up to him,” said Graham. “He’s the president.”
Again and again, Graham downplayed Trump’s eruptions or pretended that he could be coached out of them. But it was Graham, not Trump, who began to change.
The clearest example was Trump’s persistent campaign to block Muslims from entering the United States. In December 2015, when Trump first proposed the idea, Graham denounced it. Then, in June 2016, Trump modified his language to hide the bigotry. Instead of referring explicitly to Muslims—against whom Trump continued to display animus—the new version of the ban would apply to “areas of the world where there’s a proven history of terrorism.”
At that time, in 2016, Graham held firm against the euphemism and the ban. “I’m unnerved to hear that Donald Trump talks about a Muslim ban as the way to solve the problem,” he said.
But Trump didn’t let up. A week into his presidency, he announced a ban on “entry into the United States” from “countries referred to in section 217(a)(12)” of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. That meant seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
This time, Graham accepted the euphemism. “It’s clearly not a Muslim ban,” the senator argued on Fox News. “There are Christians and other people in these countries that can’t travel either.”
Graham’s rationalization was spurious. On the same day Trump announced the ban, he promised to make it easier for Middle Eastern Christians—not Muslims—to come to the United States. But now that Trump was president, Graham didn’t want to fight with him. So he ignored Trump’s bigotry, and he said courts had no authority to “second-guess” the president’s decision.
FOR THREE MONTHS, Graham’s bargain—going easy on Trump’s domestic behavior while pressing him on foreign policy—paid off. From Syria to Iran to North Korea, Trump was doing what Graham wanted. “I am, like, the happiest dude in America,” Graham exulted in a Fox News interview on April 19. “I am all in. . . . Mr. President, you’re doing a good job. Keep it up.”
Then, on May 9, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
The Comey firing, while technically legal, was a blatantly authoritarian act. The FBI had been investigating relationships between the Russian government and the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump had just fired the man in charge of that investigation. It was the kind of thing that happened all the time in autocracies. Now it was happening in the United States.
In a phone call before the announcement, Trump gave Graham a cover story. He told Graham that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had instigated the firing and that the reasons, which had nothing to do with the Russia investigation, were laid out in a memo from Rosenstein.
Graham, like other congressional Republicans, bought the story and peddled it on TV. “To suggest otherwise, show me proof,” he said.
Almost immediately, the story fell apart. On May 10, the Washington Post reported that Trump had told Rosenstein to create the memo as a pretext for the firing. On May 11, in an interview with NBC News, Trump said he had been thinking about “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia” when he decided to fire Comey. That same day, the Times reported that Trump, according to Comey, had privately pressed Comey for his loyalty—with apparently unsatisfactory results—before firing him.
On May 16, the Times reported that Trump had been trying to corrupt Comey for months and that Comey had documented this pressure campaign in contemporaneous memos. One of the memos described a February 14 meeting at which Trump had asked Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation of Mike Flynn—at the time, Trump’s national security advisor—for lying to the FBI. Specifically, Flynn had misled the FBI about his back-channel phone calls with Russia’s ambassador to the United States in December, shortly after Russia helped Trump win the election.
By this point, it was clear that Trump had fired Comey because Comey had ignored Trump’s signals to curtail the Russia investigation. The firing was corrupt, and Graham knew it.
How can we tell Graham knew it? Because in numerous on-camera interviews, he spoke candidly about Trump, Comey, and the investigation.
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From Graham’s interviews during this time, we know he believed:
that Trump often lied,
that Trump had pressed Comey for personal loyalty,
that Trump had asked Comey to “go easy” on Flynn, and
that Trump, by his own admission, had fired Comey over the investigation.
Based on these beliefs, we can infer that Graham also knew:
that Trump had used Rosenstein to cover up his corrupt motives, and
that Trump, as he continued to deny Comey’s account, was still lying.
In the days and weeks after the firing, Graham repeatedly implored Trump not to impede or shut down the investigation, especially after it was handed off to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That’s another window into Graham’s mind: He felt it was necessary to tell Trump not to obstruct the inquiry, because he believed this was what Trump wanted to do.
In a June 8 interview on CBS News, when Graham was asked about Trump’s private attempts to coerce Comey, the senator admitted what he really thought of the president: “Half of what Trump does is not okay. If you try to convict him for being a bull in a china shop, crude and rude, you’d win. I mean . . . this is Donald Trump.”
What Graham recognized in Comey’s memos and in Trump’s public behavior was confirmation of everything Graham had said in 2015. Trump had the mentality of an autocrat. Now that he was in power, he was trying to rule like an autocrat. He hadn’t changed a bit.
But Graham had. He was now an influential adviser to the president. He was in Trump’s orbit.
Trump’s Pro-Bono Lawyer
THE COMEY FIRING WAS A TURNING POINT in Graham’s relationship with Trump. In 2016, he had tried to coach Trump through a series of authoritarian outbursts. At that time, the stakes were lower, because Trump was only a candidate. Then Trump became president and continued the outbursts. The danger to the country had increased, but again, Graham confined himself to coaching.
The Comey firing, coupled with the exposure of Trump’s efforts to corrupt the Russia investigation, escalated the crisis. Trump now held the power of the presidency, and he was using it to shield himself from accountability. He was directly attacking the rule of law.
Graham believed in the rule of law. But he didn’t want to turn his back on the president in whom he had invested so much. So he looked for a way to defend Trump without betraying the law.
The solution, he decided, was to become, in effect, Trump’s attorney.
In the weeks after Trump fired Comey, Graham continued to speak to Trump through TV cameras. But the senator’s advice was no longer about Syria or Iran. It was about the Russia investigation.
Graham wasn’t a member of the president’s legal team. But he had worked as a defense attorney in the military, and he knew what kind of counsel Trump needed. “You need to listen to your lawyers, Mr. President,” he told Trump in one interview. “I am trying to help you. But every time you tweet, it makes it harder on all of us who are trying to help you.”
Thinking like a defense attorney eased Graham’s dilemma. Representing the president’s legal interests felt like a responsible thing to do. And it allowed Graham to set aside his troublesome obligations as a senator. He could stop worrying about the country and just focus on serving his client.
Graham: I think the whole thing with Comey and the president was about Mike Flynn. He didn’t say ‘Stop the Russian investigation.’
The first thing Graham did was abandon all discussion of Trump’s character. In 2015, Graham had explained how Trump’s depravity led to heinous ideas such as torture and banning Muslims. Now, in his informal role as an attorney, he could ignore Trump’s personal corruption and stick to the letter of the law.
By coercing and firing the FBI director, Trump had subverted the principle of accountability. But could anyone prove he had violated a statute? Trump’s private demands for Comey’s loyalty were “not a crime,” Graham argued. And Trump’s warnings to the FBI director were insufficient to convict the president of obstructing justice.
On June 15, in a radio interview with Brian Kilmeade, Graham parsed Trump’s February 14 conversation with Comey. “He didn’t say, ‘Stop the Russian investigation,’” Graham pointed out. “He said, you know, ‘Could you go easy on Mike Flynn?’” Trump was just trying to be a good guy, Graham argued. “There’s no belief in my mind he was trying to stop the investigation illegally.”
Trump’s words belied this gloss. The day after he fired Comey, the president had met privately with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In the meeting, he had told Lavrov, “I just fired the head of the FBI. . . . I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
The remark to Lavrov underscored Trump’s corrupt motives. But when Graham was asked about the Trump-Lavrov meeting, he insisted that “the president didn’t do anything illegal.”
As Trump’s advocate, Graham selectively withheld information. On May 18, behind closed doors, Rosenstein briefed senators on the memo he had written about Comey’s shortcomings as FBI director, which Trump had solicited to justify the firing. Graham emerged from the briefing to tell reporters that Rosenstein had defended what he wrote in the memo. But when Graham was asked whether Rosenstein had been “tasked” to write the memo, he declined to answer.
He also tried to silence his client. After Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, Trump offered to testify in response. As a senator, Graham should have welcomed the offer. Instead, he advised Trump to say nothing. “It is inappropriate for the president to testify publicly,” said Graham. “It’s not good for our democracy.”
To accommodate Trump’s abuses of power, Graham would have to do more than reorient his moral framework. He would have to revise some of his previous positions.
To begin with, Graham had to reverse his portrayal of Comey. Previously, Graham had recognized the FBI director as a “good man.” On May 10, immediately after Trump fired Comey, Graham acknowledged that Comey was “very sincere” and “a fine man.” But after the Times reported on May 11 that Comey had told associates about Trump’s attempts to corrupt him—and after the paper revealed that Comey had recorded these events in memos—Graham realized that Comey’s credibility had to be destroyed. So he recast the former director as a bitter hatchet man.
Comey “was fired. Almost everybody fired is mad at the person that fires them,” Graham told Kilmeade on June 2. He warned of a “hit job on President Trump, where Comey just talks about selective conversations between him and the president in the White House and tries to create an impression of maybe obstruction of justice.”
Two weeks later, Graham went after Comey again. “After he gets fired, he talks about bad encounters with the president, which he did absolutely nothing about, in terms of reporting it as a crime,” Graham charged. “He’s got a political agenda.”
This whole line of attack was a sham. Comey hadn’t waited until he was fired to record his bad encounters with Trump. He had documented the encounters months earlier, in real time. That was the point of the memos. It wasn’t Comey who had changed his story. It was Graham.
The second thing Graham needed to adjust was the hard line he had drawn against intimidation of the FBI. On March 4, at a town hall in South Carolina, Graham had pledged to “make sure the FBI, if they are investigating Trump-Russia ties . . . should be able to do it without hesitation or fear.”
Now that Trump’s attempts to intimidate the bureau had been exposed—including the sacking of its director—the “hesitation or fear” standard had to be dropped. So Graham switched to a more flexible position. Intimidation and decapitation of the FBI were okay, he reasoned, because firing one person wouldn’t necessarily stop the investigation. “I don’t believe the system’s been compromised,” said Graham. “The system is bigger than Mr. Comey.”
Graham also needed to revise what he had previously said about Flynn’s back-channel phone calls with the Russian ambassador. In February, Graham had stipulated that if Flynn’s conversations included “the idea that the Trump administration would relieve existing sanctions, that would bother me greatly.” The reason, Graham had explained, was that such discussions would have undercut the sanctions and would have rewarded Russia for intervening in the U.S. election to install a Russia-friendly president.
On May 8, the day before Trump fired Comey, Graham had reaffirmed that stipulation.
After the firing, and after Comey’s memos were revealed, this stipulation became a problem. If Flynn’s phone calls with the ambassador were improper, then Trump’s pressure on Comey to drop the Flynn investigation might qualify as obstruction of justice.
So Graham dropped the stipulation. In the months after Comey’s termination, he came around to the view that if Trump had fired Comey for investigating Flynn, that was fine, because “what Flynn lied about is not a crime.”
“I don’t think it’s wrong for a transition person to talk to a foreign government about changing policy,” said Graham, outlining his new position. “I don’t have a problem with the Trump administration reaching out to the Russians [to say] ‘We’re going to take a different view about sanctions.’”
Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador were okay under Graham’s new standard in part because they had taken place after the election. Graham could still say there was no proof of collusion between Russia and Trump or Trump’s aides during the campaign. Without proof of collusion, Graham figured, nothing Trump had done to Comey could count as obstruction of justice, because there was no underlying crime to hide.
Then the proof showed up. On July 8, the Times revealed a meeting that had been held a year earlier at Trump Tower. In the meeting, which took place on June 9, 2016, three top officials in Trump’s campaign—his son, Don Jr.; his son-in-law, Kushner; and his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort—had sat down with a Russian lawyer connected to the Kremlin.
In an email chain to set up the meeting, an intermediary working with the Russian side had offered “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary,” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Those were the exact words in the email. To this, Trump Jr. had replied: “If it’s what you say I love it.”
These explicit references, in writing, to the Russian government and its support of Trump made the Trump Tower meeting an open-and-shut case of attempted collusion. And Trump had tried to cover it up. On July 31, 2017, the Washington Post reported that the president, in an attempt to play down the meeting, had personally dictated a misleading public statement that concealed the Russian offer.
Faced with this evidence, Graham did what he had to do. He narrowed his definition of collusion.
Graham argued that the Trump Tower meeting didn’t count—“We’ve found no collusion,” he continued to insist—in part because Trump’s son didn’t think it was collusion. “Don Jr. didn’t know it was inappropriate,” Graham pleaded, ignoring the email in which Don Jr. had explicitly welcomed the Russian offer to collude. “It was a mistake. He didn’t commit a crime.”
Graham now also specified that collusion had to involve Russian “intelligence services.” Back in February and March, he had defined collusion broadly—as “activity between the Russians and the Trump campaign” or “campaign contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign.”
After the Trump Tower revelations, Graham tightened his language. In December 2017, he defined collusion as a conspiracy “to coordinate with Russian intelligence services.” In April 2018, he said he was still awaiting proof that the campaign had collaborated with “Russian intelligence services . . . I’ve seen no evidence of that.” In June 2018, he dismissed the Russian visitors to Trump Tower as “these kind of weird Russians. . . . I’ve seen absolutely no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign [and] any Russian intelligence service.”
In December 2018, Graham added two further provisos. First, he said the purpose of the Russia investigation was specifically to look for collusion pertaining to emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. By this definition, the Trump Tower emails, which apparently had nothing to do with the DNC, were irrelevant.
Second, Graham said the central question was whether “the Trump campaign [got] an advantage from colluding with the Russians.” This proviso created another reason to ignore the Trump Tower episode. The Russians who came to Trump Tower didn’t have the dirt they had promised. Therefore, the Trump campaign got no advantage from the meeting, and Graham could still claim that there was “no evidence of collusion.”
WITH EACH ADJUSTMENT, Graham became more adept at accommodating Trump’s transgressions. But one big problem remained. In 2015, Graham hadn’t just criticized Trump’s behavior and ideas. He had indicted the man’s character. He had explained why Trump was fundamentally dangerous.
Now that Graham was trying to charm, appease, and protect Trump, that indictment was an embarrassment. Graham needed to make it go away.
The senator couldn’t erase his words. But there was another way to expunge them: He could argue that voters, by electing Trump, had rejected and discredited Graham’s criticisms of him. Democracy had cleansed the authoritarian.
Graham had begun to form this idea in 2016. Now he fully embraced it. At a Senate hearing on March 20, 2017, two weeks after his first lunch with the president, Graham joked that he would never have criticized Trump during the campaign, “saying all the things I said,” if he had known Trump was going to win. “But apparently what I said didn’t matter. And that’s okay with me,” said Graham. “The American people chose Donald Trump.”
Later, Graham used the same argument to renounce his most famous line about Trump. “I said he was a xenophobic, race-baiting religious bigot,” Graham recalled. “I ran out of adjectives. Well, the American people spoke. They rejected my analysis.”
Graham didn’t really believe, as a general rule, that elections nullified his criticisms of the winning candidates. The 2008 and 2012 elections hadn’t softened his views about Obama, and the 2020 election wouldn’t stop him from maligning Joe Biden. The only president truly cleansed by the judgment of “the American people,” according to Graham, was the one who subverted his accountability to the people.
Graham didn’t just invoke democracy to repudiate his own criticisms of Trump. He also invoked it to defend Trump against criticisms from others. In October 2017, when former President George W. Bush spoke out against “bullying and prejudice in our public life”—a comment widely recognized as a rebuke of Trump—Graham replied that Trump, not Bush, had the support of the people. “Donald Trump couldn’t have won without rejecting the last 16 years,” said Graham. “There were a lot of people like Bush running in our primary, and all of them got creamed.”
In particular, Graham said the election had vindicated Trump’s harshness. On Meet the Press, Graham told Chuck Todd: “The first thing Donald Trump talked about was pretty tough. And he never stopped, and he won.”
“What does that say about us?” asked Todd.
“It means that we want somebody who’s not traditional,” Graham replied.
This was an inversion of what Graham had said in 2015. Back then, he had disowned Trump’s voters as bigots and haters. “I’m going for the other crowd,” he had professed.
But now Graham was embracing Trump’s voters. He called them we.
Graham offered the same retort a month later, when Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona was caught criticizing Trump on a hot mic. “President Trump is president because the country elected him,” said Graham. “So you’ve got to give the president some credit for having a message and an agenda that people like.”
As Trump pressed on, Graham trailed after him, making the necessary adjustments. On November 28, the Times reported that the president, in conversations with advisers, was still claiming to have won the popular vote. He was also still disputing the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate. When CNN’s Kate Bolduan asked Graham about Trump’s bizarre statements, the senator blamed the media for fussing about them. “What concerns me about the American press,” Graham complained, “is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy as some kind of kook, not fit to be president.”
It was a strange accusation. The Times story hadn’t called Trump kooky or unfit. That language had come from Graham. “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office,” the senator had said of Trump in February 2016.
But that was long ago. By November 2017, Graham no longer recognized his own words.
[A printable PDF of this project is available here and a Kindle edition is here.]
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