Chapter Seven: Return of the Orange God-King
ON FEBRUARY 22, 2021, a month after Trump left office—and a week after he was acquitted by the Senate for a second time—Graham went on Fox News to promote the ex-president’s comeback. Trump was going to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference. “He’s been working the phones. I was with him all weekend,” said Graham. He called Trump “the alternative to Joe Biden” and urged Republicans to “get behind” the former president.
Six days later, in his speech to CPAC, Trump conceded nothing. He repeated that he had won the election, and he denounced the judiciary for failing to keep him in power. “This election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and other courts didn’t want to do anything about it,” he raged. The crowd responded with a chant: You won! You won!
Trump called for the abolition of early voting. He said the United States should have taken Iraq’s oil. He derided Mitch McConnell, who had condemned Trump’s role in the insurrection. And he vowed to purge congressional Republicans who had voted to impeach or convict him. In particular, he targeted Rep. Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican Conference.
“Get rid of ’em all,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “The RINOs that we’re surrounded with will destroy the Republican party and the American worker and will destroy our country itself.”
TRUMP’S DECLARATION OF WAR on RINOs—Republicans in name only—set the stage for the next two years. He could no longer control the party through presidential power. But he still had a weapon: fear.
To regain power, Trump needed to reestablish the idea that any Republican who didn’t support him was a RINO, because Trump was the party.
He was well positioned for this fight. In polls, more than 60 percent of Republicans said the election had been stolen, more than 50 percent said Trump was “the true president,” and more than 20 percent endorsed the attack on the Capitol.
In Washington, elected Republicans were divided into three camps. The first, which included Graham and most congressional Republicans, refused to hold Trump responsible for January 6th. The second group, represented by McConnell, held Trump responsible but didn’t want to dwell on it, since that might hurt the party politically. The third and smallest group, led by Cheney, rejected Trump as unfit to serve.
This wasn’t a split between the center and the right. Cheney and McConnell were staunch conservatives. In fact, they agreed with Graham on foreign policy far more than Trump did. So why should Graham stay with Trump?
Originally, Graham had aligned himself with Trump because Trump had the Republican nomination for president. Then it was because Trump had the presidency. And because the alternative to Trump was the Democrats. And because working with Trump seemed the most likely way to strengthen America’s role in the world.
But none of that was true anymore. Everything Graham had once claimed to value—constitutionalism, human rights, national security—was now pitted against loyalty to the former president.
The Iron Lady
CHENEY HAD ANNOUNCED her judgment of the January 6th attack shortly before she voted to impeach Trump. She said he had “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame.” She pointed out that he “could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
McConnell had announced his position at the Senate trial. He concluded that Trump couldn’t be convicted for a technical reason—because he was no longer president—but that he was guilty of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty.” Among other things, said McConnell, “The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things.”
Trump resolved to punish these two troublemakers. Toppling McConnell would be difficult, in part because he had pledged to support Trump if the former president won the 2024 nomination, and in part because McConnell generally tried to avoid talking about the unpleasantness of January 6th. Cheney, however, was an easier target.
The campaign against Cheney unfolded in two stages. The first step was to oust her as chair of the House Republican Conference. The second was to defeat her in a primary. By late January, Trump was working both angles. “It’s time to get this RINO out of GOP leadership!” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted.
Cheney directly challenged Trump’s authoritarianism. She called on Republicans to define their party by ideals, not by a man. “We believe in the rule of law, in limited government, in a strong national defense,” she asserted. “We Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”
Trump couldn’t smear Cheney as a leftist—in every way, she was more traditionally conservative than he was—so instead, he called her a bloodthirsty hawk. “This warmongering fool wants to stay in the Middle East and Afghanistan for another 19 years,” he jeered. He also ridiculed her performance in polls. “Liz Cheney is polling sooo low in Wyoming,” he crowed, “that she is looking for a way out of her Congressional race.”
Graham had heard these taunts before: the endless wars, the sorry poll numbers. They were the same jabs Trump had thrown at him in 2015, when Graham was a lonely hawk defending the Constitution against a demagogue.
Cheney was a reminder of the man Graham had once been.
Cheney had tolerated Trump’s corruption in office. She had opposed his first impeachment and had voted for him in 2020. But January 6th was too much. She recognized that what she had seen in other countries—a tyrant trying to overthrow democracy—was happening in her own country.
This wasn’t just a tantrum or a riot. It was “an attack on the Capitol of the United States,” she concluded. “I’ve worked in countries around the world that don’t have peaceful transitions of power, countries that have autocracies,” she warned Americans. “It can happen very, very quickly.”
And the threat hadn’t passed. She pointed out that the demagogue who had attempted the January 6th coup was still working to “delegitimize” the political system. “Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work—confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law,” she wrote.
Somehow, Graham had lost the ability to see these truths. He saw a troubled golf buddy, not the thug who had sat in the White House, patiently watching his followers overrun the Capitol. In interviews with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa for Peril, Graham conceded that Trump had “darkness” and “personality problems.” But he insisted that the former president was “redeemable.” He told the authors that “the problems created with Trump’s personality are easier to fix than if the party blew completely up and we had a civil war.”
Graham didn’t mean an American civil war, the kind of nation-rending conflict he had rhetorically promoted in 2020. The “civil war” he dreaded was just a fracture in the GOP. A Republican split over Trump was unacceptable, in Graham’s view, because it might help Democrats win the next election.
To avoid that risk, Graham urged McConnell to stop antagonizing Trump and start sucking up to him, as Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, was doing. “We don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of taking back the majority without Donald Trump,” Graham pleaded.
Everybody understood the situation: Trump was holding the party hostage. Graham and McCarthy were eager to pay the ransom. But the ransom Trump demanded—Cheney’s head—was just the start. He wanted to maintain control of the party. He wanted to regain control of the country. And he had already shown that he was willing to use force.
That was what Graham, McCarthy, and the other advocates of appeasement refused to acknowledge. To avert a figurative civil war, they were risking a literal civil war.
At first, Graham tried to protect Cheney. In early February, when Trump’s allies sought to eject her from her leadership post, the senator defended her. But by late February, he was advising her to “reconcile” with Trump. And by May, he was ready to dump her.
Cheney’s ouster, which was accomplished on May 12, showed that Trump was still a live threat. His electoral defeat, his failed coup attempt, his departure from office—none of it had finished him. Congressional Republicans were unwilling to resist him. And they were willing to get rid of anyone who stood in his way.
These collaborators told themselves they were just doing what their constituents wanted. That was how Graham rationalized his decision to turn against Cheney. The conference chair should represent House Republicans, he reasoned, and those Republicans had every right to fire Cheney for dissent. “She has taken a position regarding former President Trump which is out of the mainstream of the Republican party,” he explained.
It wasn’t just House Republicans who still loved Trump. It was Republican voters. “The people who are conservative have chosen him as their leader,” said Graham. “The people have chosen him. Not the pundits.”
CPAC illustrated the point. “Not one person” at that conference was willing to criticize Trump, Graham observed. That “tells you a lot about the strength of President Trump.” The takeaway, Graham concluded, was simple: “This is his party.”
Graham’s argument was notable in two respects. First, it was unmoored from any beliefs about freedom, the Constitution, the role of government, or America’s role in the world. The party’s putative leaders would do whatever the current base of the party wanted. This flexibility was essential, because what the current base wanted wasn’t a principle. It was a man.
Second, the argument was circular. Trump had transformed the base by bringing in his followers and driving out his critics. Voters who saw him as a dangerous demagogue were leaving the party. Republican members of Congress who opposed him were retiring or being purged.
Graham put the point bluntly. The lesson of Cheney’s expulsion from leadership, he warned, was that “people who try to erase him [Trump] are going to wind up getting erased.”
That was why nobody at CPAC had spoken up against Trump. The people who were willing to speak up against him weren’t at CPAC. They had been erased.
Through this process, the GOP was remaking itself. Trump was changing the base. The base, in turn, was redefining the Republican “mainstream.” And the party elite, by purging dissenters, was completing the cycle.
That was how the Republican party, in the name of listening to “the people,” emptied itself of all commitments but one. As Graham put it: “Donald Trump is the organizing principle, America First, to the Republican party.”
Loyalty Über Alles
IN LATE MAY, TWO WEEKS AFTER House Republicans sacked Cheney, Graham made it clear that all values or ideas under discussion within the party would be subordinated to Trump.
The Reagan Foundation and Institute was launching a speaker series titled “A Time For Choosing.” Republican leaders had been invited to answer the question “What should the Republican Party stand for?”
Graham rejected the question as asked-and-answered. “The Republicans have already chosen,” he declared. “If the primary were held tomorrow, President Trump would win . . . going away.” The more important question, Graham countered, was about personal loyalty, not ideas. “Would you support President Trump if he’s our nominee? Every Republican needs to be asked that question,” he said.
Meanwhile, Graham peddled a new conspiracy theory about the 2020 election. He claimed that a “‘Deep State’ science department” had “played a prominent role in the defeat of President Trump” by suppressing evidence that a Chinese lab leak had caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a lot like the corrupt Russia investigation, Graham suggested. “They shut down an inquiry that I think could have changed the election,” he told Brian Kilmeade. If Graham couldn’t prove that Trump had been cheated after ballots were cast, he would argue that Trump had been cheated indirectly, before people voted.
On June 18, Graham spoke in Florida at a conference of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. He proudly asserted that on his first visit to Trump in the White House, he had told the president, “I think God has put you here.” Graham also told the crowd that there had been “a lot of shenanigans” in the 2020 election. A month later, on Fox News, he repeated that Trump “owns the Republican party. . . . This is the party of Donald Trump. If you think otherwise, you’re in for a rude awakening.”
By the fall of 2021, Graham was ready to go after McConnell. Trump was angry at McConnell for cooperating with Democrats on raising the national debt ceiling. Graham entered the fight on Trump’s side and advised McConnell that he had better appease Trump, or else. “If you’re going to lead this party in the House [or] the Senate, you have to have a working relationship with Donald Trump,” said Graham. He made it clear that if McConnell failed to satisfy Trump, Graham would vote to oust McConnell as the party’s Senate leader.
This threat made a mockery of Graham’s original rationale for supporting Trump. In 2015 and 2016, he had tried to keep Trump out of power. Only after Trump won the 2016 election had Graham fully submitted to him. At that time, Graham reasoned that he should serve the new president for two reasons: because Trump had a mandate from the people and because Trump held the nation’s most powerful office.
Now Trump had lost his mandate and his office. McConnell, conversely, had been overwhelmingly re-elected to the Senate and to his post as Republican leader. If Graham truly revered democracy, he would expect Trump to make peace with McConnell.
Instead, Graham demanded that McConnell make peace with Trump. Now that the principle of respecting democracy no longer justified submission to Trump, Graham discarded the principle. He didn’t revere the will of the people. He revered the will of Trump.
Graham told his Republican colleagues that by staying in Trump’s orbit, he was tempering the former president’s behavior. He told the same story to reporters who asked about his friendship with Trump. But Trump showed no signs of being tempered. Instead of backing away from his attacks on the rule of law, he became more aggressive.
On January 29, 2022, at a rally in Texas, Trump offered to pardon people convicted of crimes on January 6th. “If I run and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6th fairly,” he said. “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because they are being treated so unfairly.”
The next day, Trump defended his attempt to have Pence, in Trump’s words, “change the Presidential Election results.” In a written statement, Trump said the vice president had the right to do this unilaterally. Trump condemned a bill that would “take that right away,” and he lamented that Pence “didn’t exercise that power, he could have overturned the Election!”
When Graham was asked about Trump’s preemptive offer of pardons, he called it “inappropriate.” But he still didn’t blame Trump for inciting the people whose crimes the former president was openly defending.
A week after Trump’s comments about pardons and overturning the election, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution of censure. It wasn’t a censure of Trump. It was a censure of Cheney and another House Republican, Adam Kinzinger, for working with Democrats on a committee to investigate January 6th. The resolution declared that the RNC would “immediately cease any and all support” of Cheney and Kinzinger.
The RNC agreed with Trump that people who were under investigation for their roles on January 6th, or in various plots to overturn the election, were the true victims. They were “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” according to the resolution.
McConnell spoke out against the resolution, but Graham defended it. Graham said the RNC was standing up, rightly, for “the people who went to the rally.” He agreed that they were just “exercising their constitutional rights.”
During the summer of 2022, a series of hearings held by the House January 6th Committee exposed Trump’s conspiracies to overturn the 2020 election. He had tried to coerce the Justice Department to declare the election corrupt. He had pressured state officials to “find”—Trump had used that exact word—enough votes to overturn the results. He had told his militant supporters to march on the Capitol, knowing that many of them were armed. Then, for hours, he had watched the attack on TV, rebuffing entreaties to tell the mob to go home.
None of this moved Graham. On June 9, as the hearings opened, he said the committee was just “trying to blame President Trump” and “change the outcome of the midterms.” There was no good reason to air the evidence, Graham suggested, since January 6th was “something every American’s made up their mind about.”
Weeks later, after dozens of witnesses had testified about Trump’s crimes, Graham dismissed the committee as a “sham, one-sided Star Chamber tribunal.” Nearly all the witnesses were Republicans, but Graham pretended that the hearings were a partisan hit job. “This investigation would make the Soviet Union cringe,” he scoffed. “Everybody on the committee has one goal: They want to get Trump.”
On June 17—a day after witnesses described Trump’s persistent attempts to coerce Pence to overturn the election—Graham spoke in Nashville at another conference of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “You know what I liked about Trump? Everybody was afraid of him, including me,” Graham told the crowd. “Don’t you miss that? Don’t you miss an America that people respected and were a little bit afraid of?”
Three hours later, Trump showed up to tell the Nashville audience what he would do if he regained power. “January 6th defendants are having their lives totally destroyed,” he said. “If I become president someday—if I decide to do it—I will be looking at them very, very seriously for pardons.”
Republicans didn’t have to put up with this. There were many other politicians the party could nominate for president instead of Trump. The most obvious was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But Graham—who had said in 2016 that the nominee should be anyone but Trump—now insisted that only Trump would do. “This is Trump’s party,” said Graham. “I like Ron DeSantis, but I know what I’m getting with Trump: the good, and the bad, and everything in between.”
When Trump left the White House in January 2021, two weeks after his coup attempt, he took hundreds of classified documents—apparently in violation of the law—to his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago. For a year and a half, despite multiple requests to return the documents, he failed to surrender many of them. So on August 8, 2022, while Trump was away, the FBI searched the estate to recover the documents.
Graham joined Trump in smearing the FBI. The search was part of an “endless effort to destroy Donald Trump,” the senator suggested.
Then Graham went further. “If there’s a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information,” he predicted, “there’ll be riots in the streets.” The reason, he explained, was that Trump’s supporters would be furious, because Hillary Clinton hadn’t been prosecuted for having classified files on a server in her basement when she was the secretary of state.
Three minutes later—in case anyone thought he was joking or speaking figuratively—Graham repeated his warning. “If they try to prosecute President Trump for mishandling classified information,” he said, “there literally will be riots in the street.”
Again, Graham wasn’t endorsing riots. But for the second time in two years, he was raising the prospect of violence to discourage legal action against Trump.
In effect, Graham was exploiting the threat of bloodshed—which was all too plausible after January 6th—and he was laundering that threat into a high-minded rationale about keeping the peace. Without any explicit or implicit coordination, Graham had formed a symbiotic relationship with Trump’s militant supporters. They supplied the prospect of violence. And he used that prospect to intimidate public officials who sought to hold Trump accountable to the law.
As the 2022 midterms neared, Graham dialed up the rage. “I want every liberal to be miserable come election night,” he told Fox News viewers. He said a victory for Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for senator in Georgia, would be especially sweet “because they hate him so much.”
In 2015, Graham had rebuked Trump for vilifying illegal immigrants as invaders. “Beating on immigrants is, like, the oldest game in the book,” the senator had complained. “In Donald Trump’s world, you know, the illegal immigrant’s going to rape your wife and steal your job.”
But that was then. Now Graham played the same game. He told Fox viewers, “Our way of life is under attack. Your family’s under attack. We’re being invaded by illegal immigrants.”
After the polls closed on November 8, 2022, Graham misled Fox viewers about the results, and he suggested that if Republicans lost, the vote counts were fishy. On November 9, he claimed that the race for governor of Arizona was “over”—Republican Kari Lake would win comfortably—and that based on the returns from Nevada, Adam Laxalt, the GOP’s nominee for the Senate, would definitely take that seat. “There is no mathematical way Laxalt loses,” Graham declared in a Republican conference call on November 10. “If he does, then it’s a lie.”
But it wasn’t a lie. Laxalt and Lake were defeated, and Republicans came up short in their bid to retake the Senate. Trump and Graham responded by blaming McConnell and trying to oust him from GOP leadership. They failed.
On November 15, Trump announced that he would run to reclaim the presidency. He said the United States should adopt a policy inspired by China’s dictator, Xi Jinping: immediate, one-day trials—followed by execution—of anyone charged with selling drugs. Trump also pledged to send the National Guard into American cities to “restore public safety,” “even if they don’t want the help.”
Graham loved the speech. “If President Trump continues this tone and delivers this message on a consistent basis,” the senator tweeted, “he will be hard to beat.”
On December 3, Trump called for the “termination” of constitutional constraints on the seizure of power. He claimed that Twitter and other Big Tech companies had conspired with Democrats to defeat him in 2020, and therefore he should be immediately reinstated as president or the election should be redone. “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” Trump wrote.
When reporters asked Graham about Trump’s statement, he conceded that it was “inappropriate.” But he also said the former president had a point. “What happened at Twitter was wrong,” Graham argued. He complained that Trump’s enemies were always trying “to bend the rules to get Trump.”
When Graham was asked whether Trump’s statement disqualified him from the presidency, he replied: “I don’t think so.”
In fact, Graham insisted that Trump—the man who had just called for suspending the Constitution—was the only person fit to lead the nation. And the reason, according to Graham, was that no one else could inspire the same fear.
On January 28, 2023, Trump came to South Carolina to unveil his campaign leadership team in the state. Graham stood proudly beside him. In his speech, Trump repeated that “massive cheating” had cost him the 2020 election. He also defended the insurrection, complaining that “law enforcement” had “put American patriots in jail.”
Trump had learned from his time as president. What he had learned was that civil servants—government employees dedicated to the United States, not to him—had gotten in his way. In a second term, he would purge them. “We’re going to find the Deep State actors who have burrowed into government, fire them, and escort them from federal buildings,” he declared, bringing to mind images of the expelled Vindman brothers. “And it’ll go very quickly.”
When Trump finished speaking, Graham shook his hand and congratulated him. Two days later, Graham went on Fox News to call for the former president’s restoration. He bragged that Trump had “scared the crap out of Mexico” and, by threatening to leave NATO, had frightened Europe into paying more for its defense.
Other Republican presidential candidates might run on the same policies, but only one man could “bring order out of chaos,” said Graham. “There are no Trump policies without the man, Donald Trump.”
As the 2024 race geared up, Trump returned to the campaign trail with a stark message: If he were to regain power, he would resume the despotic ambitions of his first term. And he would go further.
There would be no apology for his coup attempt. In speeches and social media statements, he declared that the January 6th insurrectionists were the country’s true patriots. He demanded the release of many who had been convicted or charged and jailed. He collaborated with them to produce a song, which he proudly promoted (“It’s Donald Trump and the J6 prisoners,” he told Hannity) and played at a campaign rally. He said the members of the House January 6th Committee should be prosecuted for treason.
Trump claimed dictatorial powers. He ruled out any attempt to hold him legally accountable for January 6th, asserting that “as President, I have Complete and Total Immunity.” He dismissed legal constraints on the president’s authority to send the National Guard into cities. “The next time, I’m not waiting” for state or local approval, he said. As to the classified documents he had taken to Mar-a-Lago when he left office, he insisted that he couldn’t be prosecuted because “as president, I have the right to declassify documents, and the process is automatic if I take them with me.”
To his followers, Trump promised vengeance and one-man rule. In a speech to CPAC on March 4, he told them: “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” Three weeks later, at a rally in Waco, Texas, he alluded again to domestic enemies: “I am your retribution. We will take care of them.” He pledged to “cast out the Communists and Marxists,” and he outlined a “plan to dismantle the Deep State.” It would begin with “restoring the President’s authority to remove rogue bureaucrats,” he said. “And I will wield that power very aggressively.”
In foreign policy, Trump called for pure extortion. He said he would extract “preferential treatment” for American products by threatening to withdraw U.S. troops from allied countries. He also suggested that the United States should use military deployments and security aid to gain an ownership stake in these countries. “In business, you put up money, seed money,” he explained. “You end up owning the country.”
In 2015, Graham had viewed such threats—the lawlessness, the despotism, the demands for war crimes—as a menace to the republic. But now he saw only the advantages of having a strongman in power.
On April 5, at a press conference in South Carolina, a reporter asked Graham why Trump should be president again, especially after January 6th. Graham pointed again to the fear Trump inspired. “I had a front-row seat to his presidency,” said Graham. “Nobody could have done what he did. I was there. China was afraid of him.” Mexico was afraid, too, because “they saw what he did to China,” the senator added.
With Trump back in the White House, the world would cower. “I’m tired of being afraid of Iran,” said Graham. “I would like Iran to be afraid of us.”
Sometimes I wonder whether the Graham of 2015 is still there, hidden inside the Graham of 2023. Does he know, somewhere in his mind, that he lost his way? Is it possible to reach through his layers of self-deception and connect, even briefly, with the man he used to be?
I never got a chance to try, because he declined to be interviewed for this story. But one of Graham’s former colleagues did get that chance.
On March 20, Graham sat down with former Sen. Al Franken on the Daily Show. Franken asked Graham whether Trump had lost the 2020 election. Graham conceded that he had. Franken pointed out that Trump had corruptly pardoned Flynn, Stone, and Manafort. He reminded Graham that Trump had been told repeatedly by advisers, prior to January 6th, that he had lost the election. He asked Graham how he could support the restoration of a president “who allowed us to go through this violent insurrection.”
Graham didn’t defend the lies, the pardons, or the insurrection. He sidestepped those points. He argued that Trump had done what Graham wanted “on the things that I care the most about: national security.” And he posed his own query to Franken, premised on the crimes and abuses liberals attributed to Trump.
“Here’s the question for you and maybe others,” said Graham. “Trump’s trying to come back. I think he’s got a better than good chance of winning the primary and a 50-50 chance of being president again. And you’ve got to ask yourself . . . how can that be?”
After seven years of defending and abetting Trump—seven years of transforming the Republican party into a vehicle for one man’s power—Graham thought that was a question for somebody else.
[A printable PDF of this article is available here.]