Chapter Four: Domestic Enemies
ON NOVEMBER 26, 2018, GRAHAM GOT A TREAT: He would share the stage with Trump at a rally. Graham’s stern words about Trump in 2015 were long forgotten. His tirade against Democrats at the Kavanaugh hearings had made him a hero on the right. And his work to defeat Democratic senators in the midterms had solidified his standing in the GOP.
At the rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, Trump lambasted illegal immigrants and the “Russian witch hunt.” He lavished praise on Graham, recalling the senator’s “brilliant” words in defense of Kavanaugh. And he summoned Graham to the podium, calling him “my friend” and a “star.”
The crowd cheered. Graham beamed. The next day, he was still glowing.
Graham had finally earned Trump’s love. He was earning the love of Trump’s voters, too. These were the voters Graham had shunned as haters in 2015. But now they welcomed Graham, because he was giving them what they wanted: resentment, wrath, and the vilification of Trump’s opponents.
As Trump polarized America, this enthusiasm from his fan base galvanized Republican allegiance to him. Some lawmakers had been with him from the beginning. Others had fallen in line when he captured the nomination or when he became president. Still others, worn down by his aggression, had eventually surrendered to exhaustion or fear.
But as Trump’s base became the party’s base, there was one more reason to give in: Republican politicians who embraced him would be loved. And the more fiercely these politicians affirmed his view of the world, reviling his enemies and defending his abuses of power, the more love they would get.
Graham: What did we learn from Kavanaugh? It’s not about Trump; it’s about us. They hate us. So what did that tell me? They want power way too much. There’s nothing they won’t do, when it comes to these kind of issues.
Four days after the rally in Mississippi, Graham spoke at a Republican breakfast in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He recalled his four minutes of glory at the Kavanaugh hearings. “I spoke for you,” he told the crowd. “I unloaded.”
The fight over Kavanaugh, Graham explained, was just one battle in a great war against Trump’s enemies. Every Republican had to stand with the president, because any attack on the president was an attack on all conservatives. “It’s not just about Trump; it’s about us,” Graham said. The goal of Democrats, he told the audience, was “to destroy us.”
As Graham traveled his home state that winter, this was his message to Republicans: In the struggle between Trump and the Democrats, there could be no middle ground. Democrats were vicious and had to be defeated. “They hate us,” he said. On court appointments and related issues, he charged, “there’s nothing they won’t do.”
In the old days, Graham hadn’t talked this way. He had often worked with Democrats on legislation. He still would, but something had changed. He had decided—or at least had decided to tell himself—that something about the Kavanaugh fight justified a more zealous allegiance to Trump.
Politically, this was the shrewd play. Graham was up for re-election in 2020, and he needed Trump’s voters to win his primary. But that didn’t fully explain his behavior. Even after his re-election, Graham never went back to equivocating about Trump.
He wasn’t alone. To varying degrees, this transition was happening across the party. In Trump’s first two years, many Republican lawmakers had felt obliged to explain or answer for his misdeeds. Often, they had acknowledged inconvenient facts or legal constraints that stood in his way. But over time, fatigue, partisan anger, and political necessity hardened them. They were developing the indifference necessary to protect a tyrant.
To rationalize their increasingly militant devotion, they convinced themselves that the president’s enemies were the greater threat. They claimed that Democrats would do anything to destroy Trump and the country. And that paranoid fantasy created a permission structure for Republicans to do anything in Trump’s defense.
ELEVEN DAYS AFTER THE BREAKFAST in North Myrtle Beach, Trump summoned Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer—the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, respectively—to the White House. He told them he would shut down the government unless Congress appropriated money for a wall on the Mexican border. “If the Democrats do not give us the votes,” Trump proclaimed, “the Military will build the remaining sections of the Wall.”
The shutdown began on December 22. Two weeks later, on January 4, Trump threatened to declare a “national emergency” that would allow him to bypass Congress and unilaterally fund his wall.
Before Trump became president, Graham had opposed such imperial abuse of executive power. In 2014, when President Barack Obama overhauled immigration policy by executive order, Graham had called Obama’s decision to “unilaterally change immigration” a “tremendous presidential overreach.” In 2016, he had denounced Obama’s order as “unconstitutional.”
But now that Trump held the White House, Graham endorsed unilateral presidential authority. “Speaker Pelosi’s refusal to negotiate on funding for a border wall/barrier . . . virtually ends the congressional path,” said Graham. “Democrats will do everything in their power to stop Trump in 2020,” he concluded. “Mr. President, Declare a national emergency NOW. Build a wall NOW.”
As Democrats held their ground—and some Republicans hesitated to support such a grave expansion of presidential power—Graham dialed up the pressure on senators who dared to resist Trump. “We’re going to build a wall one way or the other,” he told Democratic lawmakers on January 30. The president “has all the power in the world to do this,” he said. Raising a finger to punctuate his threat, he warned lawmakers in his own party, “To my Republican colleagues: Stand behind him. And if you don’t, you’re going to pay a price.”
Graham’s threats completed a four-year turn in his views on intimidation. In 2015 and 2016, he had recognized Trump’s despotic personality as a danger to the country. Then, in 2017 and 2018, he had found a good use for the president’s bullying: scaring foreign adversaries. Graham had warned them to comply with Trump’s demands, or else.
Now Graham came full circle. The adversaries he sought to intimidate were no longer foreign governments. They were his own colleagues. And Trump was his weapon.
The wall fight marked a new stage of Graham’s collaboration with the president. He wasn’t just protecting Trump from accountability. He was helping Trump usurp power.
The Constitution prohibits federal spending without congressional authorization. Previous presidents had issued emergency declarations, but never to override Congress. Despite this, Graham said Republicans had to stand with Trump against the Democrats. “What they’re trying to do is basically destroy America as we know it,” Graham said of the opposition party’s resistance. To break that resistance, he contended, the president “has to declare a national emergency.”
Some Republican senators worried about the implications for constitutional democracy. What would happen, they asked, if presidents began to commandeer the Treasury routinely, or if they declared states of emergency to enact other policies they couldn’t pass through Congress?
Graham advised his colleagues not to fuss about that. “To all my Republican colleagues who worry about the precedent we’re setting for the future and the legal niceties, here’s what I would say,” he told them. “It’s not what a Democrat may do in the future [that] should drive your thinking.” He counseled them to set aside such institutional concerns and focus instead on the urgency and popularity of securing the border.
Even if the emergency declaration were to be found unconstitutional, said Graham, Republicans should support it, at least for now, because it was politically useful. If the courts were to block it, he argued, Trump would “be seen as . . . fighting for what he promised, and the Democrats are on the wrong side of border security. There is no losing.” Graham called it “a great issue for 2019 and 2020.”
On February 15, Trump did it. He declared an emergency to take money for the wall, claiming—falsely—that America was under attack. “We have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people,” the president asserted.
Sixteen states filed suit against Trump’s power grab, asking the courts to step in. So Graham began to think about how Trump could manipulate the courts. In a radio interview on February 22, Hugh Hewitt urged Graham to consider “expediting” the confirmations of Trump-friendly appellate judges so they would be in place “before the barrier/wall issue comes up from the district court.” Graham replied, “Yeah, we will get them on the floor. . . . We’re thinking about changing the rules so that the thirty-hour period to debate a judge is reduced to two hours.”
Two weeks later, Graham explained to Sean Hannity how Trump could argue in court that he had congressional approval to seize the money, even though he didn’t. To stop Trump, Congress would have to pass a resolution of disapproval. The president would then veto it. If either chamber failed to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to override his veto, the resolution would fail. “When it goes to court,” Graham proposed, “the president will say, ‘Wait a minute, Congress did act. They [passed] the resolution; I vetoed it; and the Congress sustained my veto. That’s acting.’”
This was an extralegal authoritarian pact between the executive and a faction of Congress. The president, backed by one-third of one chamber, would seize powers constitutionally reserved to Congress. And the judiciary, having been stacked by the executive through unusual procedures, would stand back and accept it.
And that’s pretty much what happened. The House and Senate voted to invalidate Trump’s declaration. On March 15, he vetoed their attempt to stop him. And because Republican lawmakers stood with him, Democrats failed to override the veto.
Three months later, in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court allowed Trump to proceed with the wall. Brett Kavanaugh cast the deciding vote.
Lie for Me
A WEEK AFTER TRUMP VETOED the resolution to deny him emergency powers, Graham moved on to his next mission: burying the Russia investigation.
On March 24, Trump’s new attorney general, William Barr, phoned the senator with a heads up: Robert Mueller had filed his report on the investigation. Barr told Graham that the report was ambiguous as to whether Trump had obstructed justice. The attorney general explained that Mueller had handed off the question of prosecuting Trump, essentially telling Barr, “I don’t know, you decide.”
Barr also sent Graham a summary of the report. The summary included Mueller’s stipulation that the report didn’t “exonerate” the president.
For two years, Graham had promised Trump that Mueller would “clear” him. In June 2017, the senator told Fox News viewers that Mueller had “determined there’s no obstruction case.” In September 2018, he claimed that “Mueller won’t find anything” and “the Russia probe is falling apart.” In February 2019, he predicted that the investigation would “result in no evidence of collusion.”
The actual report, as summarized by Barr, reached no such conclusions. Barr’s summary said the report “did not establish,” at a level sufficient for prosecution, that Trump’s campaign had “conspired or coordinated” with Russia. The summary didn’t say that Mueller had concluded there was no collusion, much less that he had found no evidence of collusion. In fact, the full report—which would soon be released, but hadn’t yet been shown to Graham or anyone else outside the Department of Justice—presented extensive evidence of collusion and obstruction.
But Graham was determined to end the threat to Trump. So he lied. He pretended that the report had cleared the president.
In the days after Barr issued his summary, Graham lied relentlessly:
March 25: “The conclusion was firm, without equivocation, that no one on the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians when it came to the 2016 election.”
March 25: “He [Mueller] has rendered his verdict: There is no collusion.”
March 26: “Mr. Mueller said there was no evidence of collusion between President Trump or anybody on his campaign with the Russians, period.”
March 28: “Mueller has concluded there was no collusion.”
March 31: “The conclusions are, there was no collusion, there was no obstruction. . . . Mr. Mueller, for two years, looked at this very hard. He came out with the conclusion there was no collusion.”
None of this was true. But Graham didn’t focus on facts. He focused on destroying what he called the “collusion narrative.” He had prepared his message—that the report exonerated Trump—and he delivered that message with gusto.
In fact, he said the whole investigation had been unnecessary. “They spent $25 million trying to figure out whether or not President Trump colluded with the Russians,” Graham told a Republican audience on March 30. “They could have given me 50 bucks, and I could have given them the answer.” The next day on Fox News, he scoffed, “This whole thing was ridiculous if you know the president.”
The Bulwark is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Mueller’s full report, released on April 18, detailed several channels of attempted collusion. In addition to the Trump Tower meeting, the report found that Trump and his aides had tried to coordinate their activities with public releases—planned by Russia’s partner, WikiLeaks—of material hacked by the Russians from Clinton and the Democrats. The report confirmed that after Trump publicly invited Russia to find Clinton’s emails, hackers affiliated with the Russian government had tried to do just that. And Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had passed internal campaign documents to an associate who was connected to Russian intelligence.
Mueller also presented evidence of obstruction of justice. In addition to Trump’s coercion of Comey and Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller, the report showed that the president had told McGahn to give false testimony. And on July 19, 2017, Trump had instructed his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to tell Sessions to abort the Mueller investigation. According to the report, Trump had told Lewandowski “that if Sessions did not meet with [Lewandowski], Lewandowski should tell Sessions he was fired.”
Graham now had access to the full report, so he knew that what he was saying wasn’t true. Yet he kept going:
April 24: “He was cleared, without any doubt, about colluding with the Russians.”
May 1: “Mr. Mueller and his team concluded there was no collusion.”
May 1: “The Mueller report said there was no collusion, no conspiracy. . . . Mueller exonerated the president, in terms of working with the Russians.”
May 29: “The report shows there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and any member or operative of the Russian government.”
June 15: “[Mueller] tells us there’s no collusion.”
July 14: “Mueller said there was no collusion.”
Graham lied even more egregiously about the evidence of obstruction. “There was no effort by Trump to impede the Mueller investigation,” he proclaimed on April 24, ignoring the 40 pages in which Mueller had documented Trump’s efforts to impede the investigation. Graham repeated this preposterous denial in one statement and interview after another. He also repeated—again, falsely—that Mueller had issued a verdict of “no obstruction.”
On Face the Nation, Margaret Brennan asked Graham about the June 2017 conversation in which Trump had ordered McGahn to fire Mueller. Graham replied: “I don’t care what happened between him [Trump] and Don McGahn.”
Graham: I don't care what they talked about. He didn't do anything. The point is the President did not impede Mueller from doing his investigation.
Mueller tried to correct the public misrepresentations of his report. On May 29, he stipulated: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” On July 24, he reaffirmed that “the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.”
Graham responded by rebuking the special counsel. The only thing that mattered, said Graham, was that Mueller had failed to prove Trump was “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Mueller said it was up to Congress to decide what to do with his report. But when the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed McGahn to testify about Trump’s obstruction, Trump defied the subpoena and blocked McGahn and other aides from testifying.
Graham endorsed the president’s defiance. He urged Trump to fight the Democrats “tooth and nail” because they were “trying to destroy him and his family.” Stonewalling was justified, according to Graham, because the House inquiry was illegitimate. “You’re not covering anything up when you’re fighting a bunch of politicians trying to destroy you and your family,” he reasoned.
Trump, for his part, was unrepentant. In fact, he said that if Russia or China were to offer him damaging information about a political opponent—the same pitch that had led to the Trump Tower meeting—he would listen to the offer again. He ridiculed the idea of reporting such an offer to the FBI.
And Graham defended him. In 2017, Graham, alarmed by the Trump Tower emails, had read them aloud at a Senate hearing. He had emphasized that anyone who received such a message—“suggesting that a foreign government wants to help you by disparaging your opponent”—should “call the FBI.” But now Graham needed to excuse Trump’s contempt for that rule. So he argued that reporting such offers from foreign governments “has not been recent practice.”
“I meet with foreign people all the time. So does the president,” said Graham. “Sitting down and talking with somebody is fine. . . . You don’t call up the FBI every time somebody talks to you.”
None Dare Call It Authoritarianism
WHY DIDN’T GRAHAM AND OTHER REPUBLICANS understand that they were enabling authoritarianism? Because they saw themselves as serving a man, not an idea. They thought authoritarianism was a doctrine. If you didn’t espouse the doctrine, you weren’t an authoritarian.
But that isn’t how authoritarianism emerges in a democracy. It doesn’t appear in the form of an idea. It appears in the form of a man.
So Graham and his colleagues didn’t think they were doing anything unusual. Trump was the leader of their party. They would follow him wherever he went. They thought that was how party politics worked.
In some ways, this was less dangerous than an ideological commitment. If Trump were to lose power, then perhaps his party—lacking an explicitly authoritarian belief system—could revert to democratic norms.
But in other ways, it was more dangerous. The party would defend anything Trump did. And he wasn’t just a bully. He was a plunderer and a racist.
On July 14, as Congress was awaiting Mueller’s testimony, Trump lashed out at a group of Democratic congresswomen—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib—who had compared some migrant detention facilities in the United States to concentration camps.
The president said these women “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.” He said they had no business “viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
All three congresswomen were American citizens. Two had been born in the United States. But it wasn’t hard to figure out Trump’s angle. Two of the women were Muslim: Omar was from Somalia; Tlaib was from a family of Palestinian origin. Ocasio-Cortez, born in the Bronx, was of Puerto Rican ancestry.
Three days later, Trump denounced Omar at a rally. The crowd chanted, “Send her back! Send her back!” In his speech, Trump accused the congresswomen of “trying to tear our country down.” “They’re always telling us how to run it,” he said. “If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.”
Like other elected Republicans, Graham didn’t want to defend such overt racism. But he did want to defend Trump. So he pretended that the president’s attacks on the congresswomen weren’t bigoted. Trump had good reason to “go after” them, Graham said, because “they’re running our country down. He’s tired of that.”
When Democrats complained about Trump’s remarks, Graham tuned them out. “If you are a Republican nominee for President—or President—you will be accused of being a racist,” he tweeted, dismissing the accusation.
On July 18, reporters pressed Graham about Trump’s statements and the rally chant. Graham responded by defining racism in a way that excluded Trump’s remarks. Explicit attacks on a person’s ancestry, including calls to leave the country, weren’t racist, Graham suggested, as long as the targeted person was a member of the political opposition. “A Somali refugee embracing Trump would not have been asked to go back,” Graham asserted. “If you’re a racist, you want everybody from Somalia to go back.”
The congresswomen had it coming to them, said Graham. They had been “incredibly provocative,” he groused. “When you start accusing people of running concentration camps, who work for the United States government, you’re going to be met with some pretty fiery responses.”
With that, Graham crossed a line that was familiar in authoritarian countries. Four years earlier, he had recognized Trump as a race-baiting bigot. Now, with a revised vocabulary and a clear conscience, Graham was rationalizing ethnic persecution. Targeting Americans based on their ancestry was understandable and not racist, under his new definition, if they were guilty of not “embracing Trump.”
Soon after that episode, Graham found a way to accommodate one of Trump’s proposed war crimes: using the U.S. military to loot other countries.
In October, Trump said he would pull American forces out of Syria. He framed this policy as a business decision. “The U.S. is always the ‘sucker,’ on NATO, on Trade, on everything,” the president complained. He protested that America’s Kurdish allies in Syria “were paid massive amounts of money” and that housing ISIS fighters in American prisons was a “tremendous cost.”
On Twitter, Trump made his position clear: “WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT.”
Graham vehemently opposed the pullout. He understood that by “benefit,” Trump meant money. He also understood that Trump had been talking for years about taking oil from Middle Eastern countries. So Graham decided to persuade Trump that keeping troops in Syria could pay off in the form of oil revenue.
On October 14, Graham and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane showed Trump a map of the Syrian region where American forces were present. Graham and Keane pointed out the oil fields. A week later, in a lunch with the president, Graham followed up, stressing the importance of controlling the oil.
It worked. Trump agreed to keep troops in Syria. “He sees the benefit . . . of controlling the oil as part of a counter-ISIS strategy,” said Graham.
To Graham, keeping U.S. forces in Syria wasn’t about the money. It was about standing with the Kurds and thwarting ISIS and Iran. But to please Trump, Graham endorsed what he had condemned in 2015 and 2016: using the military to expropriate foreign oil.
“President Trump is thinking outside the box,” Graham boasted on Fox News on October 20. “I was so impressed with his thinking about the oil.” The senator outlined the business arrangement: “We’re on the verge of a joint venture between us and the Syrian Democratic Forces . . . to modernize the oil fields and make sure they get the revenue—not the Iranians, not Assad. And it can help pay for our small commitment.”
A week later, at a White House briefing, a reporter asked Graham: “By what warrant or legal right in international law does the United States take the oil of the sovereign nation of Syria?” Graham replied that the Syrian government didn’t control the oil fields; the American-backed rebels did. Using the oil revenue to subsidize American troop deployments, as well as to help the rebels, “doesn’t violate any law,” he maintained. In fact, he proposed, “We can double or triple the oil revenues . . . So this is really a brilliant move by the president to lock the oil down.”
Graham was getting exactly what he had bargained for. In exchange for defending and facilitating Trump’s corruption, he was helping to shape America’s role in the world.
But morally, the deal was getting more and more expensive. And there seemed to be no price Graham wouldn’t pay.