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Chapter Three: Power Shift
ON JANUARY 11, 2018, A YEAR INTO his presidency, Trump exploded during a White House meeting on immigration. He was angry about proposals to let in more people from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he demanded.
Republican senators in the room were taken aback. Afterward, when they were asked about the president’s outburst, some of them denied that they had heard it. Graham, who had spoken up against Trump’s slur during the meeting, refused to tell reporters what Trump had said. When they asked why, he explained: “Because I want to make sure that I can keep talking to the president.”
Trump’s eruption and the scramble to cover it up marked a shift of power in Washington. In his first year as president, congressional Republicans had chosen to excuse and protect him. They thought they were deciding how far to let him go. By his second year, the dynamic had changed. Congressional Republicans were no longer humoring him. They were afraid of him.
One reason why authoritarians tend to gain strength, even in some democratic countries, is sheer determination. The authoritarian’s will to accumulate power is stronger than the will of his opponents to stop him. Over time, that imbalance grinds down both his adversaries and his allies. The aggressor advances; the compromisers retreat.
Graham had seen this happen in other countries. Now it was happening in his country. And he was part of it.
He understood that in theory, Congress was supposed to check the president. In 2016, when Trump and Hillary Clinton were competing for the White House, Graham had talked about the importance of applying congressional “brakes” to their bad ideas. In February 2017, a month into Trump’s presidency, Graham had assured Democrats, “To the extent that Donald Trump becomes the problem, we will push back.”
It didn’t turn out that way. In his first year in power, Trump pushed harder than Congress did. As he crossed one line after another—banning travel from several Muslim countries; firing James Comey; pardoning former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an anti-immigrant scofflaw—congressional Republicans gave way. Trump gunned the accelerator, and the brakes wore down.
Like many other Republicans, Graham liked having a forceful president. He knew that in foreign policy, this was an asset. In April 2017, when Trump fired missiles into Syria, Graham told the world: “If you’re an adversary of the United States, and you don’t worry about what Trump may do on any given day, then you’re crazy.” A year later, after Trump had threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” Graham declared that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, had “put himself in the crosshairs of Donald Trump.” Graham warned Kim: “If you play Trump, that’s the end of you.”
But strongmen—Kim, Putin, Trump—don’t just threaten other countries. They also bully their own people. Graham made this point, inadvertently, when Trump slapped tariffs on China in July 2018. “If I were y’all, I’d work with him [Trump], or else,” Graham advised China’s ambassador to the United States. “Do not get on the wrong side of this guy. I’ve been there.”
Graham thought that was a good line. He meant it as a warning to China. He didn’t recognize it as a warning to America.
Why do political elites miss these warning signs? Why do they align themselves, often fatally, with rising authoritarians?
One reason is that they think they’re special. They think they can protect themselves and manage the authoritarian by building personal relationships with him. They tell themselves he’s really a good guy. They tell themselves he’s their friend.
After the immigration meeting, Graham claimed that the president who had behaved badly that day—which happened to be a Thursday—wasn’t the real Trump. The real Trump, Graham insisted, was “Tuesday Trump,” who had presided over a friendlier meeting two days earlier in front of C-SPAN cameras. “The president that was on TV Tuesday is the guy I play golf with. He was charming, he was funny,” Graham told WLTX, a South Carolina TV station. “That’s the guy I know.”
Graham: You could be dark as charcoal [or] lily white. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re nice to him. You could be the pope and criticize him. It doesn’t matter; he’ll go after the pope. You could be Putin and say nice things, and he’ll like you.
Here’s what I’ve found: He’s a street fighter. It’s not the color of your skin that matters. It’s not the content of your character. It’s whether or not you show him respect and like him. And if he feels like . . . you don’t like him, he punches back.
Graham was trying to say that Trump didn’t care about color. But he was also admitting that Trump didn’t care about morals. All Trump cared about was loyalty to Trump. He was a ruthless, belligerent narcissist.
In the months that followed this episode, Graham often referred back to “Tuesday Trump.” He implied that this genial version of Trump was the real thing and that the nastier version, Thursday Trump, was an aberration.
This theory didn’t make much sense. The Tuesday meeting was the one recorded for TV. It was far more likely that the real Trump was the one who had erupted on Thursday, when the cameras weren’t running.
But Graham wanted to believe he could bring out Trump’s jovial side. He had seen it on the golf course. He told himself that Trump just needed love. And he hoped that by lavishing praise on Tuesday Trump, he could coax the president to behave nicely.
At best, this was self-deception. Golf was a completely misleading context in which to judge Trump’s character. Only the president’s friends or sycophants were allowed to play golf with him. On the golf course, he was happy because nobody got in his way.
In a constitutional democracy, people did get in the president’s way. And that infuriated Trump. He needed more than love. He needed compliance.
Sooner or later, if you tried to appease Trump, you would have to choose between him and the rule of law. An authoritarian cares more about power than anything else. So eventually, to stay on his good side, you have to accept his authoritarianism.
That was the lesson of the Comey saga. First comes the intimate dinner and the request for loyalty. Then comes the request to drop an investigation, exonerate the president, or look the other way. Either you draw a line, or you betray your country.
Comey chose his country. Graham didn’t. The senator thought this was just one concession. He thought he was still the same man.
But he wasn’t. The act of concession changes you. You don’t just learn how to bend. You also learn how to tell yourself that you never bent.
How Checks and Balances Fail
ON JANUARY 25, A FEW DAYS AFTER Graham helped to cover up the “shithole” outburst, the Times revealed that Trump’s efforts to derail the Russia investigation hadn’t ended with firing Comey. In June 2017, the president had ordered White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller. Trump had relented only after McGahn said he would resign rather than carry out the order.
The Times report showed that Trump had persisted in his schemes to obstruct justice and that he was still lying about it. It confirmed what Graham had said in 2015: Trump was incorrigibly corrupt. But by 2018, Graham had learned how to navigate the corruption. He had defended the firing of Comey. So he could defend the attempt to fire Mueller.
On January 28, in an ABC News interview, Graham offered several excuses for Trump’s attacks on the investigation. “Every president wants to get rid of critics,” the senator argued. He praised Trump for backing down after McGahn threatened to quit. “He did not fire Mr. Mueller,” Graham pointed out. “To the president’s credit, he listened.”
The interviewer, Martha Raddatz, noted Trump’s pattern of obstruction. In addition to his attack on Mueller, she observed, the president had “tried to prevent Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation, asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation before firing him, and dictated that misleading statement about Don Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting.”
Graham sidestepped the question. And when Raddatz asked about the possibility of Trump testifying before Mueller, the senator advised Trump to clam up. “If the president wants to talk to Mr. Mueller,” he warned, “before he makes that decision, if I were him, I would talk to my lawyers.”
Graham agreed, in theory, that a president shouldn’t have limitless power to fire people who were investigating him. He reminded Raddatz that he had signed on to a bill that would let judges review any termination of a special counsel. “I’ve got legislation protecting Mr. Mueller,” he said. “And I’ll be glad to pass it tomorrow.”
But the bill never passed—it never even came up for a vote—and its demise exposed a weakness in our constitutional republic: Checks and balances don’t work if one branch is unwilling to confront the other.
On April 9, the FBI raided the home and office of Trump’s longtime attorney, Michael Cohen. Media reports said the raids stemmed from an investigation initiated by Mueller. The raids alarmed and infuriated Trump. When reporters asked him whether he would fire Mueller, the president claimed that “many people” had advised him to do just that. “We’ll see what happens,” he said.
The next day, the Times reported that in December, Trump had “told advisers in no uncertain terms that Mr. Mueller’s investigation had to be shut down.” This time, the provocation was a report that Mueller’s team had subpoenaed Trump’s bank records. Trump had withdrawn his demand only after his lawyers ascertained that the report wasn’t true.
This was the third time Trump was known to have fired or attempted to fire the person in charge of the Russia investigation. And he was itching to try again. Sources involved in talks with the president told CNN that in the wake of the Cohen raids, Trump was considering firing Mueller’s supervisor, Rosenstein, in order to get at the special counsel.
Graham clearly believed that Trump was serious about trying again. In a Fox News interview, he implored Trump not to do it. “Mr. President, if you’re watching. I think you’re going to be fine, unless you screw this up,” he pleaded. “Let the process play out.”
On April 11, Graham sponsored a new bill to allow judicial review of any decision to fire a special counsel. (He would later explain that he had signed onto the bill at the request of a Democratic senator.) But some of Graham’s Republican colleagues worried that the bill would antagonize the president. Telling Trump what he couldn’t do would be “poking the bear,” one senator cautioned. Another fretted about “picking an unnecessary fight with the president.”
On April 17, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he wouldn’t even let the Senate vote on the bill. He said it was futile because Trump would veto it. “Even if we pass it, why would he sign it?” McConnell asked.
And with that, the system of checks and balances failed. A bill to forestall authoritarianism was shelved because it would offend the authoritarian.
Graham didn’t mind. When he was told of McConnell’s decision, he gave his assent. “That’s his decision to make,” said Graham. “I’ll leave it up to the majority leader how to run the floor.”
GRAHAM’S COMMITMENT TO A SECOND TRUMP TERM, barely a year into Trump’s first, handed the president a blank check. It was one thing to accept, out of respect for democracy, the election of an incipient despot. It was another thing to tell him, as he abused his office to protect himself, that he had his party’s support to remain in power for another seven years.
By this point, Graham routinely spoke of Trump in worshipful terms—“He’s a force of nature”—and had largely abandoned any interest in scrutinizing him. In 2016, Graham had criticized Trump for openly encouraging Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. But in 2018, when Mueller released evidence that Russian intelligence officers had tried to fulfill Trump’s request, Graham said nothing. In 2017, Graham had talked about examining Trump’s finances, possibly through his tax returns. But in 2018, Graham brushed off that idea, calling Trump’s returns “the last thing on my mind.”
When reporters brought up Graham’s past criticisms of Trump, the senator disowned them. “I said a lot of things. Nobody cared,” he shrugged. “Everything I said before is in my rearview mirror.”
Meanwhile, even Trump’s aides began to acknowledge his authoritarianism. His “impulses are generally anti-trade and anti-democratic,” wrote Miles Taylor, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security, in a Times op-ed that was published anonymously. “In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators.”
In Bob Woodward’s book, Fear, senior aides called the president “unhinged” and “off the rails.” The book revealed, among other things, that Trump had called Sessions a “traitor” for failing to control the Russia investigation.
Graham wasn’t interested. “The op-ed and the book won’t matter in 2020,” he assured Fox News viewers.
On August 6, at a Republican dinner in Greenville, South Carolina, Graham flaunted his connections to Trump’s family. “I’ve never had more access to a president than I have with Donald Trump,” he told the audience. He described a small dinner gathering he’d had the previous night with Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and three Fox News hosts. And he defended Kushner’s role in the 2016 Trump Tower meeting.
Graham told the crowd in Greenville that Kushner was innocent because once Kushner saw what the Russians had brought, he had asked his assistant to call him out of the meeting. The Russians had promised dirt on Clinton, but they had failed to deliver it. Kushner, realizing that the conversation was a waste of time, had bugged out. He had failed to report the meeting to the FBI, and he had omitted it from security-clearance forms that subsequently asked about his contacts with foreign governments.
All of this behavior was consistent with a failed collusion attempt. But by Graham’s definition, failed collusion didn’t count. There was “zero evidence” of collusion, he told the audience.
Graham said he’d had enough of the media going after Trump. “People are pretty tired of it,” he groused. So he told the audience in Greenville that he had a new message for Trump.
“Here’s what I told the president,” he said. “If you feel good doing it, do it.”
What Trump felt like doing was firing people who investigated him or who failed to protect him from investigations. And Graham, who had previously opposed such blatant subversions of justice, now found reasons to indulge them.
In 2017, when Trump fired Comey, Graham had scrambled to invent specific excuses for the termination. But by the spring of 2018, Graham had moved on to an expansive view of presidential power.
On April 10, Graham declared on Fox News that in the absence of proven collusion—as redefined, narrowly, by Graham—the president had absolute authority to terminate the FBI director. As long as Trump hadn’t colluded with “Russian intelligence services,” Graham contended, “Why he fired Comey doesn’t matter, because he could fire Comey for the way he looks.”
Four months later—and two weeks after the dinner in Greenville—Graham all but invited Trump to fire Sessions. In July 2017, Graham had warned, “If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay.” But on August 23, 2018, after a year of Trump’s wrath over Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation, Graham surrendered. “For the good of the nation, I think we need an attorney general that has the confidence of the president,” he concluded. “You serve at the pleasure of the president.”
Trump didn’t just want Sessions to rein in the Russia inquiry. He also wanted him to withhold indictments of other Republicans for insider trading and stealing campaign funds. On September 3, the president excoriated Sessions for allowing federal prosecutors to bring charges against “two very popular Republican Congressmen”—Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California, both of whom later pleaded guilty—thereby depriving the GOP of “two easy wins” in the upcoming midterms.
Trump’s condemnation of the indictments was openly corrupt. But Graham—while conceding that it would be wrong to exempt Republicans from the law—again defended the president. “There’s been a longstanding policy when it comes to prosecuting public officials: Don’t try to interfere with the election,” Graham argued. That was “the president’s main point,” he insisted.
Sessions didn’t yield to Trump’s pressure. Later that year, Trump fired him. Graham said the president’s decision was fine. It couldn’t be obstruction of justice, Graham explained, because Trump had an “almost unlimited ability to fire the attorney general.”
Through all of this, Graham saw himself as an institutionalist. But he was gradually undercutting the institutions of constitutional democracy. The arguments he was invoking—that it was good to have a leader who inspired fear, that the president had broad license to fire the people in charge of investigating him, that the chief executive had a mandate for anything he did, and that the only important thing was achieving results—were pillars of authoritarianism.
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Normalization and Polarization
WHEN HISTORIANS TRY TO EXPLAIN the decline or fall of a democracy, they often look for fatal moments or decisions. But sometimes there’s no decision. Sometimes it’s just inertia. By the fall of 2018, the threat to American democracy was about to escalate for entirely mundane reasons: normalization and polarization.
When an authoritarian rises to power in a democratic country, it can be a shock. But over time, the shock wears off. As the new leader tramples norms and rules, people get used to it. That’s part of what happened to Graham and his colleagues in Trump’s first year. They got used to the president’s behavior. It began to feel normal.
Normalization is corrosive. It numbs you to the authoritarian’s crimes. You stop noticing what’s happening. Or you no longer care. Or you get used to defending the leader’s abuses, as Graham did.
The second stage is more serious. Once the authoritarian’s allies have normalized his behavior, they rally around him just as they would rally around any other leader of their party. And they attack his opponents just as they would if he were a normal president.
This changes the nature and consequences of their collaboration. By treating any criticism of the president as an attack on the party, and by savaging anyone who gets in his way, they become soldiers for authoritarianism. They don’t just protect the leader. They clear his path as he abuses and expands his power.
The first target of this swarming behavior, in Trump’s case, was Comey. In October 2016, Trump had praised Comey for announcing, in a letter just before the election, that he was reopening the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton. There’s disagreement about how much the letter affected the election, but it clearly helped Trump. Only later, after Comey documented Trump’s efforts to stifle the Russia investigation, did Republicans turn against the FBI director and caricature him as anti-Trump hack.
On April 10, 2018, as Comey prepared to tell his story in a book, MSNBC aired new evidence that backed him up. Comey hadn’t just written memos about Trump’s attempts to corrupt him. He had also reported some of Trump’s behavior to Dana Boente—at that time, the acting deputy attorney general—and Boente had recorded Comey’s account in notes. The notes showed that Comey, unlike Trump, had said then what he was saying now.
The Republican National Committee responded with a coordinated attack on Comey. Graham joined in the smear campaign, claiming that Comey had a “bias against President Trump” and was “part of an effort at the FBI to give Clinton a pass.” “He’s no longer the former director of the FBI,” said Graham. “He’s a political operative.”
As more people who had worked with Trump began to tell stories similar to Comey’s, Graham and other Republicans turned on them, too. The reason why so many witnesses described Trump as ruthless, Graham argued—and why so many people in law enforcement were investigating the president—wasn’t because he was truly corrupt. It was because all these people had it in for him.
Graham pointed out, correctly, that some parts of the Russia inquiry had been mishandled. In particular, investigators had misled a court to get a surveillance warrant against Carter Page, a marginal character who turned out to be irrelevant. Graham tried to spin these minor issues into a larger conspiracy. On September 2, 2018, he claimed that “the Department of Justice and the FBI” were “out to get Trump,” and he vowed to target these agencies in the coming year. On September 23, he accused them of plotting to oust the president. “There’s a bureaucratic coup going on at the Department of Justice and FBI,” he charged.
At the time, this escalation of Graham’s language didn’t seem significant. But in retrospect, it begins to explain what happened four days later.
The Kavanaugh Fight
ON SEPTEMBER 27, Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She testified that Brett Kavanaugh—who at the time of the hearing was a federal appellate judge nominated by Trump to the Supreme Court—had sexually assaulted her 36 years earlier. Kavanaugh, testifying after her, angrily denied it.
When Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin suggested that Kavanaugh should request a suspension of the confirmation process until the FBI could investigate Ford’s allegation, Graham exploded. In a four-minute rant, he savaged his Democratic colleagues, accusing them of sandbagging Kavanaugh. Any senator who voted against the nominee was “legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen,” he sputtered. To Democrats on the committee, he seethed: “Y’all want power. God, I hope you never get it.”
Graham: Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it. I hope the American people can see through this sham.
Graham’s tirade shocked his colleagues in both parties. Nothing in the hearing or in his prior relationship with Kavanaugh or Durbin seemed to explain the intensity of his rage. But he had been building toward this moment for months, demonizing anyone who threatened Trump. He needed to hate the Democrats. And now he did.
Those four minutes pushed Graham over the edge. It wasn’t the speech that changed him. It was the response to the speech. In a phone call, Trump congratulated him. “Wow! Remind me not to make you mad,” said the president. Sean Hannity told Graham it was “your finest moment ever.” Republican audiences suddenly adored Graham. In South Carolina, his approval rating soared.
In the past, Graham had described Democrats as misguided but well-meaning. Now he condemned them as malicious. “The Democratic party is organized around what they hate,” he told one Republican audience in October. “They will do anything to get their way,” he told another. “It’s not enough to have [Kavanaugh] on the Court. They’ve got to be punished.”
Graham declared himself a changed man. He warned that the Democrats had “brought out a different side of Lindsey Graham.” On October 7, as the midterms approached, he told Fox News, “I’ve never campaigned against a colleague in my life. That’s about to change.” Over the next month, he traveled from state to state, urging voters to purge Democratic senators and “kick their ass at the ballot box.”
It worked. On November 6, four Democratic senators lost their seats. Republicans increased their majority. Graham was about to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
But in the House, it was a different story. Democrats picked up 41 seats, gaining control of the chamber. For the first time in his presidency, Trump was going to face real resistance.
Graham was determined to break that resistance. He was ready to go to war for Trump.
[A printable PDF of this article is available here.]