The bruising battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination may be finished, but the political scars will last a lifetime. That is true for no one more than Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Formerly a believer that a judge must be removed if he commits perjury, the Republican from South Carolina turned a blind eye to Kavanaugh’s many demonstrable fibs. Formerly known for his bipartisanship, Graham elected to play the attack dog. (Curiously enough, this turn came after the Judiciary Committee’s counsel started asking Kavanaugh searching questions about his history of drinking and partying.)
For Graham watchers, the hearings were the latest evidence of the senator’s disturbing transformation from Never Trumper to Trump apologist. “What happened to Lindsey Graham?” is the question asked by three separate profiles in the past month. A New York Times columnist just dubbed him “the saddest story in Washington.”
Some commentators have pointed to the death of his good friend Sen. John McCain of Arizona this summer as a turning point for Graham. In reality, he’s been sliding down this path for years. And the best place to witness his transformation — indeed, to glimpse the regression of the GOP as a whole — is via his Twitter account, @LindseyGrahamSC.
First, let’s remind ourselves of what Graham used to be like in 2009. In Obama’s first term, he was to be found working with John Kerry on a bipartisan bill to put a price on carbon emissions back when Kerry was a senator: “Yes we can (pass climate change legislation),” the pair wrote in the Times. (No, they couldn’t.)
You can see the exact moment Graham realized his fellow Republicans were not as keen on Obama as he was. In the middle of a September 2009 speech to Congress, Graham starts to applaud the president’s words on education, then suddenly thinks better of it.
Graham didn’t join Twitter until December 2011, and didn’t start tweeting until March 2012. His first tweet thanked supporters for coming to a fish fry and vowed to make Obama a “one-term president.”
Graham announced his own bid for the presidency on June 1, 2015. He touted his experience, and compared himself favorably to Hillary Clinton in that area. But he was also careful to strike a note of civility and bipartisanship — one that sounds like it’s from a lifetime ago, not a mere three years.
To my friends in the other party: Our differences are real, and we’ll debate them. But you’re not my enemy. You’re my fellow countrymen.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) June 1, 2015
Donald Trump announced his candidacy two weeks later. Graham didn’t even think it worth tweeting about. Nor did he mention Trump’s comments calling Mexican immigrants criminals and “rapists.” His first ever Trump tweets came a month later, after Trump denied that McCain was a “war hero” because “I like people that don’t get captured.”
That subtweet was immediately followed by a direct attack on Trump’s fitness for office.
Trump punched back by giving Graham’s cellphone number out during a campaign speech. Graham’s response was to bring a droll understatement to a knife fight.
Probably getting a new phone. iPhone or Android?
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 21, 2015
Still, Graham wasn’t cowed; his attacks on Trump ramped up over the following months.
Here’s Graham’s first actual joke at Trump’s expense:
The next day, Graham took direct aim at the MAGA slogan using his strongest swear word.
The following week, Trump made an ominous statement of support for Russia’s president. Back then, Graham considered it an even more serious foreign policy blunder.
Just when you think it can’t get worse: A leading American candidate for President praising Putin.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 17, 2015
Graham dropped out of the presidential race on December 21, 2015, citing poor polling numbers. But that didn’t stop him from attacking Trump in unequivocal language.
Donald Trump is not a conservative Republican. He’s an opportunist. He’s not fit to be President of the United States.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) February 17, 2016
On February 20, 2016, Trump swept the GOP primary in Graham’s home state, South Carolina. Shortly after, Graham and Trump got into the first of two Twitter spats.
On May 3, 2016, Trump’s last opponent with a shot at defeating him, Sen. Ted Cruz, dropped out of the race. Graham was in an apocalyptic mood. He posted a dire prediction to his party — one that remains his most liked, most talked-about tweet, even now.
If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) May 3, 2016
Just nine days later, however, Trump won the delegates he needed. Graham posted this, and you can almost hear the gnashing of teeth.
I had a cordial, pleasant phone conversation with Mr. Trump yesterday. I congratulated him on winning the GOP nomination for President.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) May 12, 2016
If anyone on Trump’s campaign expected Graham to fall into line, however, they were disappointed.
A day after the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released, Graham again made his anti-Trump feelings clear.
I have never been comfortable with Donald Trump as our Republican nominee.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 8, 2016
Name one sports team, university, publicly-held company, etc. that would accept a person like this as their standard bearer?
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 8, 2016
In the wake of three disastrous debate performances by Trump, Hillary Clinton was riding high in the polls. Graham’s tweets indicated he considered Trump’s campaign to be a lost cause.
Not even the last-minute bombshell of then FBI director James Comey reopening an investigation into Clinton’s emails deterred Graham from making it clear on election day that he did not vote for Trump.
In the prez race, voting for Hillary Clinton was always a non-starter and I couldn’t go where Donald Trump wanted to take the USA & GOP. #2
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) November 8, 2016
Instead the senator punched his ballot for a Republican running as an independent, Evan McMullin.
Even after a perfunctory statement congratulating Trump on his surprise victory, Graham remained cautious — particularly about Trump’s relationship with Russia.
I hope President-elect Trump won’t become the 3rd American president to misjudge Vladmir Putin.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 16, 2016
In the month after Trump’s inauguration, Graham’s tweets continued to be ambivalent. Reacting to a Trump proposal for a “border tax” on Mexico to build the wall, Graham tried to bring the funny by tweeting that it was “mucho sad.”
Simply put, any policy proposal which drives up costs of Corona, tequila, or margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad. (2)
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) January 26, 2017
Graham tweeted support for all Trump’s cabinet picks, but also pushed for investigations into Russia’s impact on the 2016 election — and cautioned against the first Muslim travel ban.
Ultimately, I fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) January 29, 2017
But if there is a pivot point in Graham’s relationship with Trump, it arrived in March 2017. He issued a statement in support of the second travel ban, and had a White House meeting that seemed to thaw relations — to the point where he and Trump became phone buddies again.
Still, Graham was prepared to defend Jeff Sessions against Trump’s insistence that the Attorney General prosecute Hillary Clinton — even if the strongest word he could muster to describe this norm-breaking outrage was “inappropriate.”
President Trump’s tweet today suggesting Attorney General Sessions pursue prosecution of a former political rival is highly inappropriate. 4
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 25, 2017
When literal Nazis and Klansmen rallied in Charlottesville, Graham was prepared to attack Trump over his “many sides” statement. But he didn’t dare tweet his complaints directly, preferring to link to a newspaper interview.
Two days later Trump struck back at Graham directly, calling him “publicity seeking” and a “disgusting” liar. Graham then got into his second ever quote-tweet spat. In a non-threaded thread, he warned Trump that he was now being quoted approvingly by racist hate groups, implored him to “fix this” and said that “history is watching us all.”
But by this point, Graham could not attack Trump without sending an approving tweet literally one minute later.
Trump’s announcement calling for a troop surge in Afghanistan the following week seemed to patch things up as far as the hawkish Graham was concerned.
And then, a couple months later, the golfing began.
How bad did he beat me? I did better in the presidential race than today on the golf course!
Great fun. Great host.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 9, 2017
Later that month, the supposed fiscal conservative Graham voted for Trump’s deficit-ballooning trillion-dollar tax cut. By Trump’s first State of the Union in January 2018, the senator was tweeting full-throated support for the “law and order president.”
President Trump clearly relishes being the Law and Order president and a strong Commander in Chief.
Just what America needs!
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) January 31, 2018
In April, two years after predicting the GOP would be “destroyed” by Trump, Graham announced he was all in for Trump 2020.
The preemptive endorsement also marked a distinctive trend in Graham’s tweets: Since March 2018, he has started using Trump’s twitter handle. A lot.
In July, Trump’s craven display of obsequiousness towards Vladimir Putin in Helsinki shocked the world. Graham had once considered Trump’s support for Putin worse than his proposal for a Muslim travel ban. Now he merely described it as a “missed opportunity.”
Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections.
This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves. (1/3)
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 16, 2018
Even that mild display of dissent was erased a couple days later, when Graham credulously insisted Trump was not denying the conclusions of his own intelligence services.
I have just been reassured unequivocally by the White House legislative team that the President’s ‘no’ response today to shouted questions was not intended to suggest that President Trump doubts the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia is continuing to attack….
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 18, 2018
Soon enough, Graham was couching his Russia criticism within a statement that he was “totally” agreeing with Trump.
Totally agree with President Trump’s observation about Russia not being long-term pro-Republican or pro-Trump. Putin is pro-Chaos and is an Equal Opportunity Disruptor of the American electoral system.
Let’s act together, let’s act now. https://t.co/iY5or4mLpA
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 24, 2018
In April 2018, Graham had signed on to a bipartisan Senate bill that would have specifically protected Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But in August 2018, the bill having gone nowhere, Graham tweeted that he hoped Mueller would “wrap up his investigation sooner rather than later.”
He also gave an interview in which he appeared to back away from supporting Jeff Sessions. For the first time, Trump quoted Graham approvingly.
There was little time for Graham to respond to that tweet. John McCain, who had not wavered in his opposition to Trump, passed away later the same day.
I will need some time to absorb this, but I want Cindy —and the entire McCain family — to know they are in my prayers.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) August 26, 2018
McCain had specifically disinvited Trump from the funeral, but Graham was able to wangle an invite for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Around the same time, he tweeted a photo of his meeting with Ivanka.
After the McCain funeral, Graham’s long transformation into a Trump surrogate seemed complete. Here he is a week later, tweeting his support in the wake of early revelations from Bob Woodward’s book Fear.
By any reasonable measure we have one of the strongest economies in modern history, President Trump has rebuilt a broken military, and we are pushing back hard against America’s enemies.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) September 5, 2018
Meanwhile, Republican representatives in the House were in the throes of discrediting Mueller’s investigation by attacking the investigators. This presented no problem for Graham.
It is increasingly clear it was the Obama Administration who politicized the DOJ/FBI, not the Trump Administration.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) September 11, 2018
What is interesting to follow through all this is how much more frequently Graham tells us to tune in to appearances on Fox News, Fox Business News, and CNN. The more controversial he gets, naturally, the more he does on-air “hits.”
And then we come to the Kavanaugh nomination, and the revelation of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation. In a startling display of hypocrisy, the senator who had gone all-in for a man he once despised now accused Democrats of acting in a Machiavellian manner.
When it comes to stopping Pres @realDonaldTrump and his agenda there seem to be no boundaries.
Whether it’s coaching witnesses or reporting thinly-sourced stories without proper verification, everything is fair game and falls into the category of – ‘The Ends Justify the Means.’
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) September 24, 2018
By the end of the nomination process, Graham wasn’t just supporting Trump in his tweets — he was starting to sound like him. Note the use of ellipses instead of numbering his tweets, the one-word descriptions, and the very Trumpian touch of capitalizing the word “victory.”
Perhaps there is more of Graham’s Twitter story to be told; maybe he will disentangle himself from Trump after the midterms. But at the moment, his trail of shifting positions looks like a cautionary tale for future generations.
Here, kids, is what happens when you gain a tax cut, and a Supreme Court seat, and a whole lot of airtime, but lose your political soul.