The golf-and-politics alliance between President Donald Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham frayed Wednesday over Syria, with the South Carolina Republican threatening to become the White House’s “worst nightmare” unless more is done to protect Kurdish fighters against Turkish attacks.
Trump, in turn, suggested Graham focus on his job leading the Senate Judiciary Committee and reminded him who’s in a position to threaten whom.
“I am the boss,” Trump said.
Asked whether he could still work with Trump, Graham huffed, “I don’t care right now.”
It was a striking change in one of Trump’s most unlikely Washington partnerships, part of a broader rupture with congressional Republicans who increasingly struggle to defend the president’s foreign policy. That’s generally not been a challenge for Graham, at least since the 2016 election. Throughout Trump’s time in office, Graham has modeled the technique of flattering and supporting the president where possible and saying he “disagrees” with him at other times.
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Their falling out may not last long, as Graham has publicly disagreed with Trump before only to return to the fold. And Trump has reason to preserve ties, as Graham has become a useful ally — something he can’t spare as he tries to hold GOP support against possible impeachment by the House. Graham in recent weeks had been on the airwaves defending him on that.
The relationship between the two men is walking proof at how successful Trump has been at bending the Republican Party to his will. The two men clashed repeatedly during the early stages of the 2016 campaign, with Graham declaring that the brash New York businessman was unfit for the post he sought. Trump accused the senator of Beltway hypocrisy, at one point even reading out his cell phone number at a rally.
But after that November’s stunning result, Graham began to cozy up to the new president. And Trump let him.
For the president, having Graham as an ally opened a conduit to the establishment in the Republican Senate. Graham was willing to provide ardent support for the White House’s doomed efforts to overturn “Obamacare.”
It was during those negotiations that the two men began to forge a friendship and Trump told confidants that he was surprised and appreciative of the senator’s willingness to aggressively defend him on television — something few other Republican senators seemed willing to do with any consistency, according to three White House officials and Republicans close to the president who are not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Trump has observed that Graham’s eagerness to attach himself to the president was likely to ward off a possible primary challenge from the right, a testament to the power of his base. But Graham’s willingness to break with his longtime friend, Sen. John McCain — whom Trump loathed — to frequently side with Trump also delighted the president, his allies said. And the president still praises Graham’s aggressive defense of Brett Kavanaugh during last year’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Trump has mused that he needs more “energy” like that from other Republicans, according to the officials.
All that recent professed goodwill seemed to crumble when the White House announced Oct. 6 that Trump was withdrawing U.S. forces from protecting the Syrian Kurds, clearing the way for a brutal invasion by the Turks. Trump’s move was a stick in the eye of the hawkish senator who had acted as something of a presidential educator on foreign policy. Three years after raging against the former New York developer for being unqualified for the presidency, Graham was back to hammering Trump.
Syria, Graham tweeted, was “the biggest mistake of his presidency” and made Trump no better than President Barack Obama. The move would help ISIS break the prisons the Kurds have been guarding, Graham said. And if there is another terrorist attack, he said, it’s on Trump.
Then Graham, who is up for reelection next year, launched a vague threat against a president fond of retaliating against his critics.
“I will do anything I can to help him, but I will also become President Trump’s worst nightmare,” Graham told Pat Robertson on TV’s “The 700 Club” in remarks broadcast Wednesday. “To President Trump, if you’re listening to this interview, if you remove all of our forces from Syria, you’re throwing the Kurds over, ISIS will come back on your watch, and Iran will take over and you, my friend, will be in great jeopardy of losing the election.”
Trump suggested Graham mind his own Senate business and his political fortunes, which Trump defined partly as defending Trump.
“I think Lindsey should focus on Judiciary,” Trump said at the White House alongside Italian President Sergio Mattarella. “The people of South Carolina want to see those troops come home and I won an election based on that.”
Politically, the threats are thin gruel, as neither man is in danger of losing South Carolina next year. Trump remains popular there, and Graham’s outspokenness tracks with his campaign’s announcement this week of record fund-raising — for the state and among Republican Senate candidates in this filing period.
But both men face blowback from their pasts. Trump is facing the House’s impeachment inquiry over his pressure on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Biden family, a matter that troubles many Republicans and is replayed daily as the House hauls in a different current or former administration official to testify on the subject.
And Graham is weathering criticism over his flip-flop for trashing Trump as a “nutjob” in 2016, only to turn around and embrace him as president. He’s also got a past when it comes to impeachment. Graham, a former Air Force prosecutor, was among the House members most aggressively gunning for President Bill Clinton during impeachment proceedings in 1999.
Then a House prosecutor, Graham spoke from the well of the Senate to make the case: “Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
Now a senator, Graham seems to be part of the impeachment defense. Asked about whether Trump improperly asked Ukraine’s leader to undermine a political opponent, Graham replied he had “zero problems with this phone call.”