Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRestlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Senator-jurors who may not be impartial? Remove them for cause Broad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa MORE (R-S.C.) is a lawyer and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, but his favorite activity on Capitol Hill is holding court.

Every week, television cameras line up in the hallway outside Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in hopes of catching a quote from Graham that will dominate the day’s news shows — and he rarely disappoints.

ADVERTISEMENT

Graham’s positions on President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE widely vary. He defends Trump to the hilt on impeachment but has emerged as the harshest Republican critic on his decision to allow a Turkish attack on Kurdish allies in Syria. Graham’s criticism over Syria triggered a rebuke from the president, who said last month that Graham “would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years.”

The press gaggles around Graham outside the Judiciary Committee room sometimes rival the weekly press conferences Senate leaders hold every Tuesday after lunches. And while Senate Majority Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum No. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses MORE (R-Ky.) usually limits himself to about four questions a week, Graham is glad to expound at length on a variety of topics.

Reporters follow him in packs as he walks between his Russell Senate Office Building and the Capitol, and there’s often a stakeout of television reporters just outside the Russell Rotunda basement looking out for Graham coming down the hallway.

Senate Republican colleagues marvel at his ability to keep himself atop the news, which they say is helped by his close relationship and frequent contact with Trump.

“He’s definitely active,” said Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonNadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Senators opt to drink milk on Senate floor during impeachment trial MORE (R-Wis.). “He’s been at this a while so he’s well-practiced at it.”

Being a media celebrity, however, can stir bad feelings in the Senate, as senators sometimes resent their colleagues for being in the spotlight while their own work gets ignored.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottWhat to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Democrats' impeachment case lands with a thud with GOP — but real audience is voters Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on MORE (R-S.C.), Graham’s home state colleague, acknowledged that Graham is at the center of attention these days but asserted there are no hard feelings because of it.

“The one thing most of us would agree on in the Senate, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, is that Lindsey likes to get things done, which is a workhorse,” Scott said.

Scott said media outlets flock to Graham in large part because of his close relationship with Trump but added that relationship, which generates a lot of coverage, also makes Graham more effective in pursuing his policy goals.

“The fact that he has a really good relationship with the president — and with a president [for whom] a good relationship and good communication is especially important — improves the likelihood that you all want to talk with him,” he said. “I think they talk every day.”

Graham is spearheading the campaign to transform the federal judiciary, which hit a milestone last week when McConnell announced that 1 in every 4 judges on the federal courts of appeals is a Trump appointee.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet he is also pressing Trump to crack down on Turkey by adopting tough sanctions that go further than many Republican lawmakers feel comfortable with. And he is challenging the president’s cozy relationship with the Saudi royal family by blaming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, pointing to evidence he vividly called “a smoking saw.”  

Critics of Graham — and there are many — point out the senator repeatedly mocked Trump when he ran against him in the 2016 presidential primary. They also maintain that Graham, who served as an impeachment manager during former President Clinton’s impeachment trial, is singing a much different tune now. 

This past weekend, left-leaning comedian Bill MaherWilliam (Bill) MaherMegyn Kelly to appear on Bill Maher's 'Real Time' on Friday Pelosi offers message to Trump on Bill Maher show: 'You are impeached forever' Pelosi announced as lead guest on season premiere of 'Real Time with Bill Maher' MORE said Graham “is like hypocrisy on steroids” during his HBO show.

Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and former Senate fellow, said Graham’s zigzagging around the mediascape could erode some of his credibility.

“He’s kind of like a pinball. He moves from bumper to bumper, flipper to flipper,” Baker said. “He’s sort of in a footrace with Sen. [John] Kennedy from Louisiana to see who can make the most bizarre outspoken remarks,” referring to another Republican on the Judiciary Committee with a knack for getting quoted.

Graham took fire last month when he doubled down on Trump’s comparison of the House impeachment proceeding to a “lynching.”

While other GOP senators scrambled to distance themselves from Trump’s remarks, Graham declared, “This is a lynching in every sense.”

Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said Graham has “always been on the Sunday shows and always been somebody who mixes it up with reporters.”

Knotts said Graham — who is up for reelection next year — used to lag in popularity among Republican voters behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyIs Mike Pence preparing to resign, assume the presidency, or both? Judd Apatow urges Georgia voters to get rid of Doug Collins after 'terrorists' comment Nikki Haley: Democratic leadership, 2020 Dems are the only people mourning Soleimani death MORE (R) and Scott, but that has now changed.

“He’s becoming the darling of Fox News,” he said. “When you look at the three big Republicans of the last decade or so, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham, Lindsey Graham was always a solid third.”

Graham last week declared that Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughCollins walks impeachment tightrope Supreme Court sharply divided over state aid for religious schools How Citizens United altered America's political landscape MORE, whose nomination was nearly derailed by allegations of sexual assault and sexually inappropriate behavior, had “lived a life we should all be proud of.”

He thanked Trump for sticking with the embattled nominee despite the allegations against him.

After the death of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials MORE (R-Ariz.) and the retirements of Sens. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerRNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Tenn.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeThe Hill's 12:30 Report: House managers to begin opening arguments on day two Flake: Republicans don't speak out against Trump 'because they want to keep their jobs' GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials MORE (R-Ariz.), the Senate lost three of its biggest newsmakers last year. Graham has stepped into the press vacuum.

Graham’s spokesman, Kevin Bishop, however, disputes any insinuation that his boss is a glutton for media attention, stating that his office turns down “99 percent of the media invites we receive.”

Graham made waves last week when he declared he wasn’t going to read any of the transcripts of key witnesses in the House impeachment proceedings against Trump.

“I’m not going to read these transcripts. The whole process is a joke,” Graham declared in an impromptu hallway press conference.

In another interview, Graham told CBS News the House investigation is “a bunch of B.S.”

That comment generated a lot of public attention, though it also rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way.

When Graham also said Wednesday that Trump needs to evaluate his “tone and style” after Republican losses in suburban areas of Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania in last week’s elections, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) said Graham should follow his own advice.

“Maybe that should start with him, who says ‘I’m not even going to look at this stuff.’ I think we all need to moderate our tone and style,” Jones said last week.

On Wednesday, Graham postulated that Trump couldn’t have demanded a quid pro quo from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky because the White House’s foreign policy approach was too “incoherent.”

“They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo,” he told reporters. The remark was quickly picked up by many media outlets.