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What The Hell Happened To Lindsey Graham?

The South Carolina Republican used to be Democrats’ go-to guy when they needed help with a deal. But now “it’s like the guy I knew got kidnapped and his twin brother showed up,” said one Democratic senator.

Posted on January 15, 2019, at 4:48 p.m. ET

Adam Maida for BuzzFeed News

The idea that there are two, totally different Lindsey Grahams has grown so popular that even Lindsey Graham is getting in on it.

As he began his first hearing as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Graham reassured Democrats that the bipartisan Lindsey — “immigration Lindsey” — would show up. “But the other guy’s in there too,” he warned, “and I don’t like him any more than you do.”

Graham’s unpredictability — his acknowledged tendency to Hulk-out at his rivals — and his about-face in regard to President Trump have led people to ask: What the hell happened to Lindsey Graham?

“It’s like the guy I knew got kidnapped and his twin brother showed up,” said one Democratic senator of Graham’s transformation.

The mystery of Lindsey Graham is one of the great questions of American politics in 2019. And from some corners of Twitter to MSNBC’s broadcasts, you might hear that Graham is being blackmailed by Trump, or by Russia, or by both.

But those who work with him take a less fantastical view: that Graham has always had a wild streak in him, that he comes from a deeply conservative state, and so he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by cozying up to the president.

And they say that the Kavanaugh hearings sincerely and truly changed everything for him.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham during a hearing with Judge Brett Kavanaugh with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27, 2018, on Capitol Hill.
Pool / Getty Images

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham during a hearing with Judge Brett Kavanaugh with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27, 2018, on Capitol Hill.

Graham is the subject of such intense interest because the South Carolina senator spent years building his name as the ultimate bipartisan. He was a Republican point man on the cross-party “Gang of Eight” immigration bill to extend a citizenship path to 11 million people, and pushed back against runaway hatred of Obama.

He also rejected Donald Trump, whom he described with words like “dangerous,” “absurd,” “stupid,” and even told Trump to “go to hell.” Before the presidential election, Graham warned that Trump’s border policies would bring “demographic death” to the Republican Party. “If we nominate Trump we will get destroyed…and we will deserve it,” he once said.

But now Graham warns it is not Trump but Republicans abandoning Trump’s border wall that poses the existential threat to the party. “If we undercut the president, that’s the end of his presidency and the end of our party,” he said this month.

That Graham represents one of the most pro-Trump states in the country and is running for reelection in 2020 is not lost on those who say he’s unrecognizable. The cost of his reputation for bipartisanship was that he was long seen as vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right. When Graham voted for Obama’s Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Republican voters “were about ready to shoot him down here,” one GOP strategist told McClatchy.

Nowhere have the risks of standing up to the president been more apparent than in South Carolina, where more than four out of five Republican-leaning voters support the president. Rep. Mark Sanford, a popular former governor, stood up to the president and had to endure his twitter wrath. Sanford lost his primary challenge and is no longer in Congress. Other high-profile Trump critics, like Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, decided not to run for reelection rather than face primary challenges. Several House members have done the same.

Sen. Bob Corker (left), Sen. Jeff Flake, and Graham leave after meeting in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office as Senate moderates try to find a way to end the government shutdown Jan. 21, 2018.
Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc.

Sen. Bob Corker (left), Sen. Jeff Flake, and Graham leave after meeting in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office as Senate moderates try to find a way to end the government shutdown Jan. 21, 2018.

But where others have been driven out of Washington, Graham has thrived. If his friendship with Trump didn’t do the trick, the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh did. Graham had been sitting around a soft 50% approval rating with Republican-leaning voters. That jumped more than 20 points after the hearings.

“Lindsey’s political fortunes have completely turned,” said Matt Moore, former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party. “There were serious questions about whether the senator would face a credible primary opponent next year. Those questions have gone away. You’d have to be an absolute idiot to try to primary Lindsey Graham in 2020.”

Democrats also say that the Kavanaugh hearings were a decisive turning point, though they see it in a very different light. During the hearings, Graham angrily blamed Democrats for sexual assault allegations being raised against Kavanaugh, and 20 million people watched Graham ferociously accuse Democrats of perpetrating “the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.”

His fiery speeches in media appearances and committee hearings, where he accused the Democrats of perpetrating a smear campaign to destroy Kavanaugh’s life, made him the face of Republican pushback and, unexpectedly, something of a conservative rock star. For example, one day after the hearings, two Republican women from California had gotten day passes to the Capitol. While they were mildly starstruck as senators like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio came and went, they excitedly told reporters that their main goal of the trip was to get a photo with their biggest hero: Lindsey Graham.

“You’d have to be an absolute idiot to try to primary Lindsey Graham in 2020.”

If there was any expectation that things would go back to pre-Kavanaugh normalcy, that was dashed when Graham hit the campaign trail. Democrats privately and publicly say they were stunned when Graham started showing up in places like Florida to campaign against Sen. Bill Nelson, or in Montana against Sen. Jon Tester. “It did surprise me,” said Tester. “This [election cycle] was really personal. And I think he added to it.”

But one case in particular has been held up as evidence of Graham’s transformation. Sources say that in 2018, Graham walked up to Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly on the floor of the Senate, hugged him, and told him he needed to win his midterm election because they had more work to do together. Donnelly and Graham had been friends for years, and Donnelly had once encouraged Graham to run for president.

Then Donnelly voted against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. And when the midterms were in full swing, Graham went to campaign against Donnelly on incredibly personal terms. “He did come to my hometown to campaign against me,” said Donnelly when asked about the campaign. “We have been friends for years.”

It is not unheard of for senators to campaign against their colleagues. Some do, some don’t. But Graham had never done it until 2018.

Graham doesn’t think he’s changed at all, and he has no regrets about campaigning against Donnelly, or anyone for that matter. He agrees they were friends, but says Donnelly made his own bed when he voted against Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

“I told Joe that I thought that if he did this that was a break with what I thought Joe was all about,” said Graham in an interview with BuzzFeed News.

From Graham’s point of view, he was the one who was betrayed. After voting for Sotomayor and Kagan, he expected fair treatment from the other side. Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed by a historically tight vote of 50–48, with Joe Manchin of West Virginia being the only Democrat to vote in favor.

“I don’t think it would have been a heavy lift for [Donnelly] to have supported Kavanaugh. He made a political decision. It was clearly a political decision on his part,” said Graham. “I like Joe Donnelly but, you know, if they’re going to play the game one way I’ll play it that way.”

Democrats have maintained they are innocent of Graham’s charges, and the full sequence of events does not support the theory that Sen. Dianne Feinstein held back sexual harassment allegations against Kavanaugh for maximum impact. Still, Graham clearly continues to hold that grudge.

Now that he has taken over as chair of the Judiciary Committee, Graham will be tasked with advancing Trump’s judicial nominees, starting with attorney general nominee William Barr. Committee members on both sides are wondering whether the bad blood of the Kavanaugh hearings will linger.

“I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, I mean it as a compliment: Lindsey’s unpredictable,” said Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican Judiciary Committee member. Kennedy said the committee has “hard feelings that we’re not going to solve with hugs and hot cocoa,” but he trusts Graham to be able to bring everyone together.

Others aren’t as sure. “It doesn’t feel like that Lindsey is around much right now. Now, maybe he’ll resurface, but it feels like he’s gone away, and all of us are mourning him,” former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill told the New Yorker before she left office.

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware is in many ways the mirror image of what Graham had been for the Democrats. He’s developed a reputation for bipartisanship and notes he has worked productively with Graham on issues like immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and foreign aid.

“The relationship we’ve built over the eight years I’ve served with him here has been greatly strained by the Kavanaugh hearing,” said Coons. “I hope to find a way to continue to work with him on Judiciary and Appropriations, but I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t say the tensions and the conflict of the Kavanaugh hearing are really difficult for a lot of Democrats to get past.”

Graham listens to President Donald Trump make an announcement regarding the First Step Act prison reform bill in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Nov. 14, 2018.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Graham listens to President Donald Trump make an announcement regarding the First Step Act prison reform bill in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Nov. 14, 2018.

Having Trump’s ear has the benefit of giving Graham the power to help craft the administration’s policies, at least in theory. In practice, Trump has abandoned Graham when the chips were down.

In 2018, Graham helped negotiate what would have been a historic immigration reform package. It approved $25 billion in border security funding in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of DREAMers, people brought to the country without documentation as children.

But Trump’s endorsement was crucial. Republicans needed cover to know he would back the deal rather than call them out them for granting “amnesty.” Graham met with Trump on a Tuesday and got the president’s endorsement. Two days later, the day of the vote, Trump went on Twitter to blast the legislation. Republican votes scattered and the bill failed. The cause of death was diagnosed as “torpedoed by tweet.”

Exasperated, Graham vented to the press about the difference between “Tuesday Trump” and “Thursday Trump.” He pleaded for Tuesday Trump to return, but that never happened. Graham’s dream of immigration reform remains as distant as ever.

Some of his colleagues say the idea that Graham has changed is overblown. He has had vicious battles with Democrats in the past. And he has preserved a willingness to criticize Trump, as he did recently over the administration’s response to the murder of reporter Jamal Khashoggi and Trump’s plan to withdraw US troops from Syria.

“Remember that Lindsey was a prosecutor in the Clinton impeachment and was an ardent Benghazi pursuer. So it’s not as if we haven’t seen that aspect of Senator Graham’s politics before. It is not necessarily new,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

Republicans also say there is an element of sour grapes because Graham’s side ultimately won the Kavanaugh fight. And while that fight got personal, it didn’t stop Graham and Democrats from working together on a landmark criminal justice reform bill that became law in December.

“[I]t’s not as if we haven’t seen that aspect of Senator Graham’s politics before. It is not necessarily new.” 

Tim Scott, the other Republican senator from South Carolina, said he doesn’t think Graham has changed but rather he’s doing what it takes to win, and that frustrates people who had gotten used to collaboration.

“I think Lindsey is basically the same guy he’s always been,” said Scott. “The bottom line is simply that Lindsey is a tough negotiator and plays to win. Ultimately he’s doing what he thinks is right and if you’re on the other side that’s not his issue.”

Ultimately, whether he’s changed or is still the same guy, it’s hard to argue that whatever Lindsey Graham is doing is working. Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court. Graham is as secure in his Senate seat as he’s ever been, and, as Judiciary Committee chair, as powerful as he’s ever been. He still can lobby Trump, and, for all the hurt feelings, many Democrats said they’ll continue to work with Graham, because what other choice do they have?

And if that means Graham is now delivering more fiery speeches and running against his Senate colleagues, maybe that’s as much of a comment on how the country has changed as it is on him. Moore argues that politicians are an extension of the people who vote for them, and Graham is savvy enough to realize that.

“There’s a demonstrable difference between where we are now as a Congress and as a country than, say, 2012,” said Moore. “It’s just an acknowledgment that the country has changed. Lindsey Graham is a street fighter.” ●

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