Graham-Trump rollercoaster hits dizzying speed

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Trump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition The Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment drama will dominate this week MORE (R-S.C.) has become one of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE’s most vociferous critics on the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, even as he defends the White House just as loudly over the House Democratic impeachment inquiry.

Graham has flipped from Trump critic to friend throughout the president’s rise to power and time in office, but never at a more dizzying pace than in the last few days.

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This week he has loudly denounced Trump for abandoning Syria’s Kurds to oncoming Turkish forces while doing everything possible to defend the president from a rising impeachment crisis.

Graham said the administration had “shamelessly abandoned” Kurdish allies and that the pullout would go down as the “biggest mistake” of Trump’s presidency, even as he invited Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTop diplomat said request for specific probes in Ukraine was 'contrary' to US policy Press: Another billionaire need not apply Condoleezza Rice says reports of an unofficial US policy in Ukraine are 'deeply troubling' MORE before the Senate Judiciary Committee to offer a defense of the impeachment claims.

A spokesman for Graham told The Hill on Thursday that there’s nothing inherently contradictory in agreeing with the president on some issues but disagreeing on others.

To be sure, the shifts from Graham are nothing completely new.

As a 2016 presidential candidate, Graham memorably battled with Trump, who at one point publicly released Graham's cellphone number after being called a “jackass” by the South Carolina senator. Graham released a video showing ways to destroy a cellphone, which concluded by saying that “you can always give your number to the Donald.”

More recently, Trump and Graham have battled over foreign policy after Graham tweeted that the administration’s decision not to retaliate militarily to Iran’s downing of an American drone “was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness.”

Trump bristled, insisting, “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”

He later mocked Graham’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, asking reporters, “How did going into Iraq work out?”

For the most part, Graham has been a loyal foot soldier even as his best friend in the Senate, the late John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Sanders proposes expanded Veterans Affairs services, B to rebuild infrastructure Cindy McCain says husband John McCain would be 'disgusted' by state of GOP MORE (R-Ariz.), engaged in a bitter feud with Trump that didn’t even end with the senator’s death in August 2018.  

Politics has always largely explained Graham’s loyalty to Trump on most issues.

Graham faces reelection next year, and it makes sense for incumbent GOP senators to have the president solidly on their side.

But Graham appears to have found a fighting ground where he can push back at Trump hard on specific issues without losing the president’s support. 

“He’s had to walk kind of a fine line, but I think his political position is pretty strong right. He’s defending the president, who is popular in his home state, while differing with him on an issue where probably his base in his home state questions the president,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist.

Graham shared some insight into his thinking in an interview earlier this year with The New York Times Magazine when he made clear his reelection is very much on his mind, telling reporter Mark Leibovich, “If you don’t want to get reelected, you’re in the wrong business.”

Graham also acknowledged that having an influence on the leaders who call the shots, such as Trump, is a top personal priority.

“I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he said.

Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, said other Republicans have also defended Trump on impeachment and criticized his Syria policy but noted that his boss gets more attention.

"We are vocal but we also have a bigger microphone and platform as well. We turn down 99 percent of the media invites we receive," he said. 

Trump has maintained solid approval numbers with base Republican voters, but his decision to reposition U.S. troops, allowing Turkey to more easily attack U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria, threatens to create a rift with many GOP voters, especially in South Carolina, one of the most pro-military states in the country.

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“It may be the most pro-defense state,” Weber said of South Carolina, which is home to several military bases including Parris Island, the famed Marine Corps boot camp, and nearly 400,000 military veterans who make up about 10 percent of the state’s population.

A Hill-HarrisX poll from earlier this year showed that 59 percent of registered Republican voters said they favored keeping a military presence in Syria, and Senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly in February to express strong opposition to a precipitous withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan.

Graham’s strategy has paid off politically.

His poll numbers were weak after his failed presidential bid, with an approval rating dipping to 16.3 percent and an unfavorable rating reaching 42.1 percent, according to an average of polls compiled by HuffPost.

Only a year ago, he still faced potential primary challenges from Beaufort County Councilman Mike Covert, who opted instead to run for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District seat and recently acknowledged that Graham is now too tough to beat.

Graham’s ardent defense of Trump on the impeachment front gives him some political cover to be more critical of the administration’s foreign policy moves.

Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston, said Graham is “being very strategic in the decisions he’s making.”

“It’s not just ad hoc,” he said. “The strategy seems to be fighting off any challenge in a primary but also being able to be relevant with the president.”

Knotts said Graham had to worry about a primary challenge heading into the current election cycle but also wanted to exert influence over the president on one of his top priorities, national security policy.

“He was concerned about some kind of primary challenge because amongst the core Republican voters they’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable with Lindsey Graham,” he said. “But I think, secondarily, Graham as he said is somebody who wants to have maximum influence and he feels building that relationship with Trump is going to put him and South Carolina in a better position.”

Graham’s diligent efforts to position himself as a confidant of the president have given him access to Trump that many other Republican lawmakers lack.

A few months after he criticized him on Twitter, Trump told a group of reporters in February that he also listens to Graham and respects him.

“Lindsey, you know, [on] the Middle East, he’s been there many times. It’s close to his heart,” Trump said, according to a McClatchy report. “People I respect, I listen to.”