Graham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it'

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight MORE (R-S.C.) said in an interview that aired Sunday that he thinks former President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE can make the GOP “bigger” and “stronger,” or he “could destroy it.”

Graham, who has been considered an ally and defender of Trump since his election, told “Axios on HBO” that Trump encompasses a “bigger-than-life deal,” describing the former president as “sort of a cross between Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan and P.T. Barnum.”

“He could make the Republican Party something that nobody else I know could make it,” the Republican senator said. “He could make it bigger. He could make it stronger. He could make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it.”

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The South Carolina senator described the former president as having both a “dark side” and “some magic there.”

“What I’m trying to do is just harness the magic,” Graham said, noting that past Republican presidential nominees John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey MORE and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenators scramble to save infrastructure deal Schumer urges GOP to ignore Trump: He's 'rooting for failure' Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds MORE weren’t successful in their runs like Trump was.

“I want us to continue the policies that I think will make America strong,” Graham told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “I believe the best way for the Republican Party to do that is with Trump, not without Trump."

Graham had publicly challenged Trump’s mental fitness to handle the presidency ahead of the 2016 election. But after Trump defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonA path to climate, economic and environmental justice is finally on the horizon Polling misfired in 2020 — and that's a lesson for journalists and pundits Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe MORE, Graham welcomed the former president.

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Graham stood by Trump throughout most of his presidency, although he condemned Trump for his role in the Capitol riot in January, saying in a floor speech hours later that “enough is enough.” 

The senator's comments come as the Republican Party is determining how much of a role the former president will play in the GOP after his one-term presidency. 

In his first major address since leaving office, Trump spoke to supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week in an effort to solidify his leadership role in the party and tease a potential 2024 presidential run