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Lindsey Graham was attacked about Jan. 6 than he let on — or has indicated since

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But in the late evening on Jan. 6, after the Capitol had been cleared of pro-Trump rioters who were similarly eager to have Trump retain office, Graham’s tone changed.

“Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey,” Graham said, clearly agitated. “I hate it to end this way. Oh, my God, I hate it. From my point of view, he’s been a consecutive president. But today, the first thing you’ll see, all I can say is count me out. Enough is enough.”

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He outlined the various legal challenges that Trump’s campaign had launched, all of them unsuccessful at overturning the result. “When it’s over, it is over,” Graham said, then pointedly adding that Joe Biden was “the legitimate president of the United States.”

In the months that followed, Graham went to great lengths to make clear that his frustration was solely with Trump’s insistence that the election should be challenged. “What I was trying to say to my colleagues and to the country was, ‘This process has come to a conclusion,’ ” he said in an August 2021 interview. That’s all. Nothing more.

New reporting, though, suggests that Graham was far more alarmed by Trump’s behavior than that presentation might suggest. Axios obtained excerpts of a new book from New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns. The pair spoke with Graham on Jan. 6 itself and heard directly from the senator about his view of Trump at the moment.

After condemning President Donald Trump’s actions around the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, multiple GOP lawmakers have since thrown their support behind him. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Graham anticipated that the riot might lead to people saying “I don’t want to be associated with that,” Martin and Burns write — an echo of what Graham would say later on the Senate floor. He predicted that “there will be a rallying effect for a while, the country says: We’re better than this.”

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Perhaps most remarkably, the new reporting includes a threat made by Graham. In a call to the White House attorney as the riot raged, Graham warned that, if Trump didn’t act more quickly to tamp down the violence, “we’ll be asking you for the 25th Amendment.”

That’s a close ally of Trump’s threatening to support an unprecedented action to remove the president in response to the violent takeover of the Capitol. And yet, seemingly as quickly as it arose, it dissipated.

At a news conference Jan. 7, Graham publicly rejected calls for invoking the 25th Amendment.

“The president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution,” he said. He then downplayed the previous day’s violence: “The rally yesterday was unseemly, it got out of hand.”

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When Trump faced a second impeachment trial in the Senate, Graham quickly rejected a conviction.

“There is no doubt that January 6 was one of the saddest days in American history. It will be part of President Trump’s term in office,” he said in a statement. But: “The charge against former President Trump for inciting violence was contrary to the evidence.”

In the months that followed, Graham’s position softened further.

“I want us to continue the policies that I think will make America strong,” he told Axios two months later. “I believe the best way for the Republican Party to do that is with Trump, not without Trump.”

He has since declared that the Republican Party “can’t grow” without Trump and that he would oppose a renewed leadership bid from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unless McConnell had “a working relationship” with Trump — someone who is, at this point, a private citizen.

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“There’s something about Trump,” Graham said in that Axios interview last year. “There’s a dark side and there’s some magic there.”

This seems to capture Graham’s view of the former president quite succinctly, the side he likes and the side he doesn’t. The challenge is that, since the 2016 election when he called Trump a xenophobe and a bigot, Graham has kept his reservations private while elevating that “magic.”

Even before Jan. 6 itself, Graham had evaluated and rejected Trump’s claims about fraud. A scene in the Bob Woodward and Robert Costa book “Peril” depicts aide Lee Holmes discussing with Graham purported evidence of fraud passed along by the White House in a series of memos.

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“Holmes found the sloppiness, the overbearing tone of certainty, and the inconsistencies disqualifying. The three memos added up to nothing. …”

“Holmes reported to Graham that the data in the memos were a concoction, with a bullying tone and eighth grade writing.”

“Graham looked over the memos. ‘Third grade,’ he said. Holmes said part of the claim was based on an affidavit.

“Graham said, ‘I can get an affidavit tomorrow saying the world is flat.’ “

He offered no such pushback publicly before a riot that was obviously precipitated on Trump’s claims about rampant fraud.

This tension between dark and light has long been a component of Trump’s support. His opponents see little light shining through; his most ardent supporters easily overlook the shadows. Being a Republican member of Congress in the modern era means being forced, at times, to defend or denounce the darkness.

What’s different about Graham is that he acknowledges the divide while also repeatedly downplaying it. He saw the bleakness of Trump’s claims before the Capitol riot, and he knew — as did so many others in his orbit — that Trump bore responsibility for what was unfolding. Yet while his private excoriation flirted with ousting Trump from office, according to Martin and Burns, his public words in the subsequent hours were about removing himself from Trump’s fight.

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There’s little question that Trump and Graham are broadly aligned politically and that he would rather have a President Trump than a President Biden despite his relationship with the Democrat. But Graham seems to have learned a lesson after consulting Trump in 2016: No matter how sharp or urgent the criticism, offer it only in private.

It’s an approach that Graham isn’t alone in taking. And it’s a large part of why Trump therefore retains the sort of power over the GOP that Graham insists his party respect.

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