Trump-Graham relationship tested by week of public sparring

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (R-S.C.) doesn’t know where his special relationship with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump opens new line of impeachment attack for Democrats Bloomberg to spend 0M on anti-Trump ads in battleground states New witness claims first-hand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes MORE is headed after a series of heated exchanges this past week broke a cardinal rule in Washington: stay loyal to your political allies. 

Graham, who has been one of Trump’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill, held nothing back in repeatedly scorching the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, essentially green-lighting a Turkish attack on U.S.-allied Kurds in the region.

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Now, he’s not sure whether that public criticism will have a lasting effect on his status as one of Trump’s confidantes. 

“Time will tell about that,” Graham said when asked if the relationship would be hurt by the sparring over Trump’s Syria actions.

Graham’s back and forth with Trump confused some of his Senate GOP colleagues, who very rarely go toe-to-toe with the president.

“It doesn’t seem to be a very effective way to communicate his desires to the president,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on the spat.

“It’s a complex relationship,” the senator quipped.

Graham, who is known for promoting a muscular approach to foreign policy, appeared rankled that one of Trump’s other Senate confidantes, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump: 'Everybody knows who the whistleblower is' Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens Senate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges MORE (R-Ky.), seems to be having more influence on Trump.

On Thursday, Graham urged Trump several times to ignore Paul, who has applauded the president’s decisions to begin demobilizing U.S. troops from hot spots in the Middle East and Central Asia.

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“Just listen to the commanders. Don’t listen to Rand Paul,” Graham said at a press conference, later doubling down on the point.

“Listen to your commanders. General Paul is not a very good general,” he added. 

Graham’s salvos were risky, particularly since Trump is known for punching back hard at his critics — Democrats and Republicans alike.

That propensity was on display Wednesday when Trump accused Graham of wanting “to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years with thousands of soldiers fighting other people’s wars.”

Graham pushed back on that attack Thursday during a press conference by rolling out legislation to sanction Turkey for its recent attacks on the Kurds.

“He made a remark about me — I want to be there a thousand years — no, I want to be there long enough until we’re safe,” Graham said. 

“I have been in war zones. I’ve spent 33 years in the military and I’ve had some friends killed. So this is no casual thing for me. I don’t love war. What I crave is security,” he added, his voice rising, in a possible reference to the fact that Trump did not have to serve in the Vietnam War because of academic deferments and bone spurs. 

“Mr. President, if you don’t understand that ISIS is coming back, you’re missing a lot of good advice. If you don’t understand these bastards would kill us all if they could, you’re not listening to what they’re saying,” he said, looking directly into the TV cameras.

Graham said he is less worried about his friendship with Trump than the threat his foreign policy could reverse years of hard-won gains against ISIS, the group that supplanted Al Qaeda as the biggest terror threat facing the U.S. 

“I’m not worried about anything other than our national security. People in South Carolina trust my judgment or I wouldn’t be here. People in South Carolina believe know what I’m talking about but more importantly people in South Carolina respect the military and hope the commander-in-chief would follow good advice,” he said.

In an interview with Greta Van Susteren, Graham later downplayed the tension with Trump and declared “he’s got the thickest hide I’ve ever seen.”

“You work with him one day, fight with him the next. I don’t agree with what he’s doing in Syria. I want him to be successful and I think he sees that,” Graham said.

Graham argued he merely wants Trump to follow the advice of his top military commanders, who reportedly opposed the decision to pull U.S. troops out of key positions, giving Turkey an easier path to attack Kurdish forces.

The Trump-Graham feud hit a boiling point Wednesday after Graham blasted the decision to shift troops, calling it “the biggest mistake” of Trump’s presidency and warning it would put the United States at risk.

Graham slammed the president for “not listening to his advisers” and characterized Trump’s belief that the Kurds are better off without U.S. intervention as “unbelievable.” 

He also warned that Trump’s Syria policy could wind up being “a disaster worse than President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq.” 

Trump didn’t take kindly to the critiques. He suggested Graham butt out of the foreign policy debate altogether and said he “should focus right now on judiciary,” referring to Graham’s role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary panel.

Upon being informed of Trump’s comments, Graham said, “I will not ever be quiet — I will not ever be quiet about matters of national security."

Graham has a history of clashing with Trump and later patching things up.

He blasted Trump ahead of the 2016 GOP presidential primary as a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” after Trump announced his proposal to ban people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the United States.

He also warned Republicans would “get destroyed” and “deserve it” if they nominated Trump for president.

But Graham walked away from those criticisms after Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhat are Democrats going to do once Donald Trump leaves office? Trump to hold campaign rally in Florida later this month Krystal Ball accuses Democrats of having 'zero moral authority' amid impeachment inquiry MORE. He later became one of the president’s golfing buddies and a close adviser, regularly chatting with him over the phone. 

While the two publicly feuded over Syria, they still kept in contact.

Graham noted that he was on a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday, when the Turkish leader promised to stay away from a Kurdish area of Syria. 

He said he spoke a day later with Trump and Erdoğan, adding they had a “pretty good” roadmap for stemming the fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces. 

“We had a pretty good plan in place,” Graham said, noting that Tuesday’s phone call laid the groundwork for peace talks Thursday between Erdoğan, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFive takeaways from ex-ambassador's dramatic testimony Pompeo: No US response ruled out in Hong Kong Ousted ambassador describes State Department in 'crisis' in dramatic impeachment testimony MORE.

Graham on Thursday received a heads-up from Trump about the agreement for Turkey to suspend military activity in Syria to give Kurdish forces a chance to withdraw.

“Sounds like we may have made real progress regarding a cease-fire and hopefully a sustainable solution that will prevent the reemergence of ISIS and the abandonment of our ally, the Kurds,” Graham tweeted after Trump called him with the news from Air Force One.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges On The Money: Lawmakers dismiss fears of another shutdown | Income for poorest Americans fell faster than thought | Net employment holds steady in September | Groups press Senate on retirement bill Lawmakers dismiss fresh fears of another government shutdown MORE (R-Okla.) said Trump seems to be able to take Graham’s criticism in stride. 

“I would say Graham is pretty blunt with the president when he talks to him and is critical at moments when he’s critical,” Lankford said. “He’s taken a lot of criticism and done a lot.”

“I think he’s been willing to take the criticism when it’s due and disagree with it and push back,” he added.

But when asked if Graham’s having any influence on Trump’s decisions, Lankford said, “There’s no way to know.” 

Graham, when asked Thursday if he' influencing Trump’s decision-making, said, “That’s up to him.”