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Chapter Six: Insurrection Day
THREE HOURS AFTER THE POLLS CLOSED in South Carolina on November 3, 2020, Graham got the good news: The Associated Press projected that he would win re-election. His job was secure for another six years.
When Trump saw the news, he phoned Graham to congratulate him. Graham responded with encouragement. “Hang in there,” he told the president. “It’s looking pretty good for you.”
But the night wasn’t good for Trump. As ballots were counted into the next day, it became increasingly evident that he would lose.
This was Graham’s chance to let go. Like many other Republicans, he had offered his fealty when Trump won the presidency. Then, for four years, Graham and his colleagues had defended or ignored Trump’s abuses of power. They had rationalized this complicity as a necessary bargain: By earning the president’s trust, they had influenced his policy decisions and restrained his worst impulses.
Now that bargain was no longer necessary. Trump would soon be out of power. The danger he posed to the United States and to the world was receding. Graham was free.
But Graham couldn’t let go. Those four years had changed him. He wasn’t his own man anymore. He was Trump’s man.
When a politician submits to an authoritarian, the politician tells himself that the alliance is only temporary. Sometimes the authoritarian has a mass following; sometimes he already has power. The politician wants access to that following and that power. He imagines that eventually he can leave the alliance just as easily as he went into it.
But submission changes the one who submits. The more you contort yourself to serve the leader, the more you forget what you once believed. The more you rely on the leader for strength, the weaker you become. The more you cater to the leader’s adherents, the more you become what those adherents want you to be.
The outcome of this process isn’t just that you can’t leave. It’s that you no longer want to.
To let go of Trump, Graham needed one of three things:
an understanding of the gravity of Trump’s crimes and the threat Trump posed to the country;
an alternative vision of the Republican party—one guided by principles, not by devotion to Trump; or
a willingness to lose the next election to the Democrats.
By November 2020, Graham no longer possessed any of these. He had rationalized so much corruption that he was largely desensitized to it. He had lost faith in the viability of a Trump-free Republican party. And he had convinced himself that Democratic-led government would be ruinous. Therefore, Republicans had to win the next election. And to win, they had to placate Trump.
The first thing Trump wanted was a united push by Republicans to discredit the election results. He made this clear in public and in private phone calls with Graham. So the senator complied. “The allegations of wrongdoing are earth-shattering,” Graham told Fox News viewers on November 5. “Philadelphia elections are crooked as a snake. . . . You’re talking about a lot of dead people voting. You’re talking about in Nevada, people voting who are not legal residents.”
This was a big change from 2017. Back then, when Trump claimed that voter fraud had robbed him of victory in the 2016 popular vote—though he had won the Electoral College—Graham had warned the president that such reckless allegations would “shake confidence in your ability to lead the country.” But now that the nation’s political system had rejected Trump, the president no longer cared about public confidence. He didn’t want to preserve faith in the system. He wanted to destroy it.
Over the next month, Graham peddled one bizarre tale after another: rigged computers, dead voters, fake ballots from nursing homes. In private, he ridiculed affidavits that alleged voter fraud. “I can get an affidavit tomorrow saying the world is flat,” he told an aide. But on TV, he hyped affidavits as evidence that the election results couldn’t be trusted.
Graham, like Trump, was repeatedly advised that his allegations were baseless or far-fetched. And like Trump, he refused to back down. In a press briefing on November 6, a reporter alerted Graham to what Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania had said that morning: There was “simply no evidence” of “any kind of widespread corruption or fraud” in Pennsylvania’s election. Graham shrugged off the warning. “Philadelphia’s not the bastion of free and fair elections,” he sneered.
The next day, as continuing tabulations closed off any chance of a Trump victory, all the major TV networks, including Fox News, announced that Biden had won. But Graham refused to accept their verdict. “These computers in Michigan do not pass the smell test,” he protested, adding that the same “software was used all over the country.” He went on: “We have evidence of computers flipping Republican votes to Democratic votes. . . . Do not concede, Mr. President. Fight hard.”
On November 12, Fox News host Steve Doocy pointed out that the election wasn’t particularly close. Trump trailed Biden by “tens of thousands of votes” in several states, Doocy reminded Graham, and therefore the outcome could be reversed only by “some sort of systemic fraud, some gigantic thing.” Graham replied that thousands of votes should be disqualified in Nevada, and he rehashed bogus stories about fraudulent ballots.
By the end of November, all the decisive states had certified their election tallies. On December 1, Attorney General William Barr added that despite investigations by the FBI and U.S. attorneys of various Republican allegations about the election, he had “not seen fraud on a scale” that could change the result.
But Graham still didn’t let up. “I sent an affidavit over, signed by a gentleman in Pennsylvania . . . about backdating ballots,” he told Fox viewers on December 3. “Sean Hannity had a gentleman on his show a night or two ago that claims that he took ballots from New York to Pennsylvania. . . . That would be an earth-shaking revelation.” (Both stories were unfounded.) On December 11, Graham endorsed a Texas lawsuit that sought to void the election results from Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Overturning the Vote
GRAHAM DIDN’T JUST DISPUTE the election’s outcome. He tried to overturn it. On November 13, he phoned Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, and asked whether Raffensperger could discard all mail ballots from counties in which relatively high numbers of voter signatures were thought to be dubious. Raffensperger interpreted this as a corrupt suggestion; Graham later insisted he was just asking questions.
Meanwhile, Graham openly pressured Georgia officials to override the state’s results. A week after the call to Raffensperger, Graham claimed on Fox & Friends that fishy signatures should have voided 39,000 ballots in Georgia, “more than enough” to put Trump ahead. “We’re going to fight back in Georgia. We’re going to fight back everywhere,” he vowed.
On December 7, after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp refused to overturn Georgia’s results, Graham responded with a public threat: “if you’re not fighting for Trump now when he needs you the most as a Republican leader in Georgia, people are not going to fight for you when you ask them to get re-elected.”
At no point did Graham endorse violence or explicitly ask state officials to do anything illegal. Despite his incendiary rhetoric and his misleading claims of fraud, he made it clear that he would accept court rulings and would support the peaceful transfer of power. American democracy survived the weeks after the 2020 election in part because Graham and other senior Republicans didn’t cross that line.
But that low standard, paradoxically, allowed Graham and his colleagues to rationalize their complicity in spreading propaganda about election theft. They pretended that their personal scruples—each of them, individually, would stop short of violence or open defiance of the Supreme Court—kept them faithful to democracy and the rule of law.
They were officially against arson, even as they soaked the house in gasoline.
Later, in books and articles about this period, Graham would depict himself as a voice of reason, working behind the scenes to calm the president’s anger. But even in private, he didn’t push Trump to concede. In fact, he encouraged Trump to “keep fighting” in the courts.
At the same time, on TV, Graham fed Trump’s supporters many of the falsehoods and apocalyptic fantasies that would ultimately drive them to insurrection. He didn’t use the word “rigged,” but he repeatedly told Fox News viewers that the electoral system was so stacked against them and so riddled with fraud that Republicans couldn’t prevail. “If we don’t fight back in 2020, we’re never going to win again presidentially,” he charged.
On November 9, Graham told Sean Hannity’s four million viewers that Democratic victories in elections were systematically corrupt. “We need to fight back,” he demanded. “We win because of our ideas. We lose elections because they cheat us.” On December 7, he told Hannity’s audience that Democrats in Georgia had to be stopped before they “steal another election.” On December 9, he suggested that the presidential vote tallies couldn’t be trusted because Trump had “won 19 of 20 bellwether counties that predict 100 percent who’s going to be president.” “How could it be,” Graham asked, that Republicans “grow our numbers in the House, hold the Senate, and Trump loses?”
As Trump, Graham, and other Republicans worked to sow unrest, the country’s elders worried. In a 60 Minutes interview on November 15, former President Barack Obama cautioned Americans: “There are strongmen and dictators around the world who think [they] can do anything to stay in power.”
Four days after that interview, Graham ridiculed such comparisons. He assured Fox News viewers that Trump was nothing like a dictator. In the left’s hysterical vocabulary, Graham jeered, “A dictator is a conservative fighting for their cause, standing up for their rights.”
On January 6, 2021, thousands of Americans, heeding the president’s call to rise up against a stolen election, descended on the Capitol to fight for his cause.
What You Wish For
THE ATTACK ON THE CAPITOL shook Graham. For four years, he had rationalized and collaborated in everything Trump did: obstructing justice, seizing emergency powers, purging whistleblowers, refusing to accept electoral defeat. But the violence Graham saw that day dismayed him. So did Trump’s failure to call off the mob. The president, in Graham’s mind, had finally gone too far.
According to Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns in This Will Not Pass, Graham phoned White House Counsel Pat Cipollone during the attack. He told Cipollone that if Trump didn’t step up to condemn the violence, “We’ll be asking you for the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.” Under that amendment, Vice President Pence and the cabinet could formally deem Trump “unable to discharge” his duties, thereby replacing him with Pence. Essentially, Graham was telling Cipollone that Trump, in his present state, was unfit to govern the country.
That night, after the mob dispersed, Graham rose in the Senate to call for unity. He finally said what he had failed to say for two months: that the stories of massive voter fraud had been debunked, that Trump’s election challenges had failed in the courts, that the judiciary was the final arbiter, and that Biden was the legitimate president-elect.
“Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way,” said Graham. But it was time, he concluded, to certify the vote of the Electoral College. To his colleagues who were still trying to block the certification, he responded: “Count me out. Enough is enough.”
It seemed that Graham was finally breaking with Trump. But that impression was mistaken. In fact, he was plotting Trump’s return to power.
Graham had been thinking about a Trump restoration since the first days after the election. “I would encourage President Trump, if, after all this, he does fall short . . . to consider running again,” the senator told Brian Kilmeade in a radio interview on November 9. “Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, lost the electoral vote in his first term. . . . Grover Cleveland came back. Donald Trump should think about it.”
In a phone call on November 18, Graham advised Trump: “You’re going to be a force in American politics for a long time. And the best way to maintain that power is to wind this thing down in a fashion that gives you a second act, right?” A month later, he told the president that for 2024, “You’ve locked down the Republican party nomination if you want it.”
January 6th complicated this plan. Instead of swallowing his grievances and leaving office, Trump had incited violence against Congress. When Graham, hours after the attack, said he hated to see Trump’s term “end this way,” he wasn’t renouncing Trump. He was lamenting the damage that awful day had done to Trump’s reputation and his chances of a political comeback.
At a press conference on the afternoon of January 7, Graham condemned the violence. He also lauded Pence for resisting a pressure campaign, in the days before January 6th, to refuse to count electoral votes. Graham described this pressure campaign in the passive voice so he wouldn’t have to mention that Trump was its perpetrator.
Before the attack, Graham had privately advised Pence that the scheme was unconstitutional. Now the senator made his opposition public. “The things he was asked to do in the name of loyalty were over the top, unconstitutional, illegal,” said Graham.
When a reporter pointed out that the pressure had come from Trump, Graham argued that Trump’s motives were understandable. “The president’s frustrated,” said Graham. “He thought he was cheated. Nobody’s ever going to convince him that he wasn’t.”
This was a remarkable statement.
Graham wasn’t just saying that Trump had been misled. He was saying that Trump was impervious to correction. Like a rapist who refuses to believe that a woman has said “No,” Trump could never accept, regardless of the evidence, that the voters had rejected him. And Trump hadn’t just stewed about his unfounded grievance. He had, as Graham conceded, acted on that grievance by defying the Constitution in an attempt to stay in power.
Graham was describing an incurable authoritarian. But the senator didn’t recoil, as he might have five years earlier. He was now so accustomed to defending Trump that even a coup attempt—by a man who, as Graham acknowledged, would never recognize that the coup attempt was wrong—couldn’t shake the senator’s loyalty. In Graham’s lawyerly mind, Trump’s impenetrable certitude wasn’t an autocratic pathology. It was an excuse.
A reporter asked Graham whether the president was “mentally unwell.” Graham said no, and he blamed Trump’s illegal ideas and false claims about the election on “very bad advisers.” But Graham knew that the root problem was Trump. He knew that Trump had chosen those advisers precisely because they told him what he wanted to hear. The senator would later admit that Trump “would have believed Martians fixed the election if we had told him, because he wanted to believe it.”
Graham wasn’t even confident that Trump would leave office peacefully. At his press conference, he struggled with that question:
Reporter 1: Do you trust the president not to incite the kind of violence that he promoted yesterday in the next two weeks?
Graham: I’m hoping he won’t. I’m hoping that he will allow [Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows to continue the transition. . . . My hope is that we can move forward in the next 14 days. But this will depend on what the president does. . . .
Reporter 2: Senator, do you believe that the events yesterday disqualify the president from seeking the office again in the future?
Graham: I’m not worried about the next election. I’m worried about getting through the next 14 days.
Graham didn’t mention at the press conference that he had privately threatened to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment. But given Trump’s behavior on January 6th, he held out the possibility of using that provision. “I don’t support an effort to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment now,” he said. But “if something else happens, all options would be on the table.”
In the months after the insurrection, Graham and many other Republicans would try to whitewash what Trump had done and what they had said, both on January 6th and in the weeks leading up to it. But the video of the January 7 press conference stands as a record of what Graham actually believed.
He believed that Trump had tried to remain in power, against the people’s will, through illegal and unconstitutional acts.
He believed that Trump would never concede, and therefore Trump would never renounce his coup attempt or accept the Biden administration’s legitimacy.
He believed that Trump might incite further violence and might not agree to leave office.
And yet, despite all of this, Graham intended to restore Trump to power.
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The Day After
ON JANUARY 8, the day after that press conference, a band of Trump supporters hounded Graham at Reagan National Airport, calling him a “traitor.” This incident later gave rise to a legend, promoted by Trump, that the airport confrontation had chastened Graham and pushed him back into the president’s camp.
But there’s no evidence that Graham had wavered in his intention to put Trump back in the White House. Indeed, soon after the press conference, Graham reassured the president that his remarks on the Senate floor about their journey together—“I hate it to end this way,” “Count me out,” “Enough is enough”—were about giving up on the 2020 election, not about giving up on Trump.
In fact, Graham was so committed to Trump that to shield him from accountability, the senator was willing to use the threat of bloodshed.
On the morning of January 13, as the House moved toward impeaching Trump, Graham tweeted that taking such a step “could invite further violence.” That evening, after the article of impeachment was approved, Graham again warned that a hasty impeachment and Senate trial “could insight [incite] further violence.” On Hannity’s show, Graham repeated three more times that impeachment and prosecution in the Senate would “incite violence”:
These actions, if they continue, will incite more violence. Every time you asked President Trump to calm his people down, to reject violence, to move on, he has done it. Now, how has he been met? I think outrageous misconduct by the Congress itself. . . . What good comes from impeaching President Trump after he’s out of office? . . . It will divide the country. It will incite violence. . . . If you want to end the violence, end impeachment.
Graham wasn’t endorsing violence. He was just stating as a fact that more people would get hurt if Congress pursued a path he didn’t like. He was using the prospect of violence as leverage to protect Trump from the legal consequences of his failed coup. A mob assembled by the president had just attacked Congress. And Graham was suggesting that if Congress didn’t take his advice, something like that would happen again.
Graham’s rebuke to the House—that it should have “met” Trump in a more conciliatory way after he agreed, belatedly, to reject violence—implied that the peaceful transfer of power was no longer an ironclad rule worthy of congressional enforcement. It was an act of grace by the president, for which Congress should have been grateful. And the trade Graham offered—“If you want to end the violence, end impeachment”—was an overt threat.
In all his years of service to Trump, this was the lowest tactic to which Graham had stooped.
On the other hand, Graham worried that Trump couldn’t afford to be perceived as deliberately fomenting or condoning mayhem. That was the charge in the article of impeachment: incitement of insurrection. To beat that rap and clean up Trump’s image, Graham needed to dissociate the president from the people who had attacked the Capitol.
With that in mind, Graham returned to the White House and coached the president through the final days of his term. On TV, the senator peddled a new narrative: Trump had never intended violence, had nothing to do with the perpetrators, and was horrified by what they had done.
On January 17, Graham went on Fox News with a prepared message. “There are a lot of people urging the president to pardon folks who participated in defiling the Capitol, the rioters,” he said. Graham explained that it would be wrong to pardon them. Then he appealed to Trump’s self-interest. Pardoning the rioters, he cautioned, “would destroy President Trump.”
That was an odd statement to make if Trump intended to leave office three days later and never return. But Trump did intend to return, and Graham intended to help him. That was why Graham protested, in the same interview, that a conviction in the impeachment trial would “disqualify President Trump from ever holding office again.”
The Trump 2024 campaign was already underway.
How had the United States come to this? How could a senior senator and many of his colleagues defend a president who had used violence in an attempt to stay in power? How could they justify returning such a man to the nation’s highest office?
Political violence was common in other countries, and elites often tolerated it. But America was supposed to be different. How could that kind of tolerance happen here?
One answer is that the senators who held Trump’s fate in their hands were, in many cases, the same senators who sometimes excused and collaborated with strongmen in other countries. They decided to deal with Trump the same way.
Graham, for instance, had made his peace with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He didn’t like Erdoğan’s suppression of dissent or his increasing centralization of power. But he worried that Erdoğan might turn Turkey away from NATO and toward Russia. So Graham decided that the United States should suck it up and “do business with Erdoğan.”
Later, Graham would make a similar calculation in Saudi Arabia. In 2018, after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Graham had vowed never to deal with MBS. But in 2023, Graham flew to Saudi Arabia and met with the crown prince to “enhance the U.S.-Saudi relationship.” In an interview with Al Arabiya, Graham explained his reversal: “The Kingdom has just purchased $37 billion of 787 Boeing Dreamliners made in South Carolina. . . . I got a hard and fast rule: You buy $37 billion of products made in my state, I’m gonna come and say thank you.”
Trump hadn’t ordered the killings of any journalists. But he was a lot like Erdoğan. He had seized emergency powers to override the will of Congress. He had called for jailing his political opponents. And two weeks before the January 6th attack, at a White House meeting, Trump and a circle of loyalists—including the now-pardoned Flynn—had discussed proposals to claim emergency powers again, this time to seize voting machines and, if necessary, use the military to “rerun” the 2020 election.
In the days after Trump’s coup attempt, Graham decided that just as the United States needed Erdoğan, the GOP still needed Trump. “President Trump’s going to be the most important voice in the Republican party for a long time to come,” Graham advised Republican senators on January 17. If those senators were to convict Trump at his impeachment trial, he warned, “it would destroy our party.”
The destruction, in Graham’s mind, would arise from Trump leaving the GOP. On January 19, the Wall Street Journal reported that the president, irked that some Republicans weren’t standing by him, was talking about forming a “Patriot party.” “I hope he doesn’t. I hope he’ll stay the leader of the Republican party,” said Graham.
Over the next two weeks, Graham came up with various arguments against convicting Trump. All of them were phony.
Graham said it was cruel and pointless to impeach Trump, since Trump was leaving office and returning to private life. But Graham knew it was neither cruel nor pointless, since Graham was plotting to bring Trump back to power.
Graham claimed that Trump’s incitement of the January 6th attack wasn’t serious enough to warrant impeachment. But Graham applied no such standards to other presidents: He had led the impeachment of President Bill Clinton for covering up an affair, and he would later demand Biden’s impeachment for failing to stop illegal immigration.
At one point, Graham admitted that he was offering arguments “to my Republican colleagues, if you’re looking for a reason to stop this impeachment and to dismiss it as soon as possible.”
Graham’s real reason—the only stated reason that matched his behavior—was that if Republican senators turned against Trump, Trump would destroy the GOP. “Without his help, we cannot take back the House and the Senate,” Graham advised Republicans on January 20. The senator repeatedly underscored that point, and on February 13, he got his wish: Forty-three of the Senate’s fifty Republicans voted to acquit Trump, blocking his conviction and clearing his path to run for president again.
Preparing Trump for his return would take time. There was a lot of whitewashing to do. A poll taken during and after the impeachment trial showed that 55 percent of Americans believed he shouldn’t be allowed to hold office. He would have to fix that.
“You are the hope, the future of conservatism,” Graham told Trump, speaking to him through the camera during a February 16 appearance on Hannity’s show. “But we’ve got to make some changes to get back the White House in 2024.”
Fortunately, Trump still had a grip on the GOP. In that same poll, 75 percent of Republicans said they wanted him to play a prominent role in the party.
And that, said Graham, was Trump’s path back to power. “You own the Republican party, my friend.”
[A printable PDF of this article is available here.]