One of the more common parlor games in online political circles these days involves analyzing one of the most stunning makeovers in Senate history. I'm speaking, of course, of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, onetime wingman to the late "maverick" John McCain, who was widely assumed to be his successor as the leading independent Republican in the U.S. Senate. Instead, for whatever set of reasons, Graham has become Donald Trump's obsequious majordomo.
McCain's reputation was inflated, of course. He was most often a doctrinaire conservative who voted the party line. But there were occasions when he would step outside the box and sometimes it made a big difference. Graham would often follow him, fashioning himself as a "common sense" kind of guy who didn't follow the crowd although even back in his first Senate term he showed he was willing to break the rules. In one overlooked perfidious act, Graham and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona conspired to put a fake floor debate into the legislative record to back up their argument in an important enemy-combatant case before the Supreme Court. So Graham's willingness to play dirty has always been there.
Graham ran for president in 2016 and while he was far from alone in criticizing Donald Trump, he was among the most cutting of all the prominent Republicans who went after him. He said at one point, "I think he's a kook. I think he's crazy. I think he's unfit for office," and called the future president a "race-baiting xenophobic bigot." He told CNN, "You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell!"
As one would expect, Trump returned the favor saying, "He’s one of the dumbest human beings I’ve ever seen" and “He says, ‘I know so much.’ He knows about the military? I could push him over with a little thimble.” One might have thought that Graham, the junior maverick, would have taken on the role of the loyal GOP opposition as his mentor McCain did. But Graham has gone the opposite way, becoming the most sycophantic of Trump supporters in the upper chamber of Congress. The aforementioned parlor game revolves around the question of why he is doing it.
Consensus seems to be that Graham had to do that in order to retain his Senate seat in South Carolina, where Trump is very popular. It's kind of sad that a favorite son has built up so little good will in his home state after two decades, but apparently Trump trumps hometown loyalty for most Republicans.
Graham has taken this to such lengths, however, that it's pretty clear that there's more going on than his own 2020 re-election. Plenty of other senators are facing the voters in Trump-friendly states without feeling the need to turn themselves into fawning lackeys.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo theorized on Twitter this week that this is a character issue rather than a strictly political one. He wrote:
I think that's correct. Graham's flamboyant self-subjugation goes so far beyond what is necessary to curry favor that it is clearly something he feels the need to do for his own psychological reasons.
This week we had yet another example of Graham's excessive servility when he angrily announced that as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee he will begin hearings into the alleged Biden corruption in Ukraine in 2014. He promised to call Hunter Biden, son of the former vice president, to testify.
Graham also sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week requesting documents related to Joe Biden's activities in Ukraine. It's too arcane to get into all this here but suffice it to say this is clearly in response to Trump's obsession with the Bidens, and accusations that have repeatedly been debunked because the timeline simply doesn't make sense. Needless to say, Joe Biden was not happy about this. He told CNN:
I am disappointed, and quite frankly I’m angered by the fact — he knows me. He knows my son. He knows there’s nothing to this. Trump is now essentially holding power over him that even the Ukrainians wouldn’t yield to ... Lindsey is about to go down in a way that I think he’s going to regret his whole life.
Graham protested that his conscience is clear, saying, "That’s the way it works in politics" and explaining, "We're not going to live in a country where only one party gets investigated," which seems like an admission that this is all a political stunt. (The idea that only Republicans get investigated is going to come as a huge surprise to every Democratic administration.) In other words, he's currying favor with Trump. Again.
What's interesting is that Graham has been promising to hold hearings and investigations for almost a year nos. As soon as he took the Judiciary gavel back in January, he announced that he planned to look into all the Fox News fever-swamp scandals, from Hillary Clinton's email server to the FBI, the FISA warrants on Carter Page and former FBI Director James Comey's alleged Clinton alliance.
After the Mueller Report was released, he doubled down, suggesting to Fox News' Neil Cavuto that he wanted to hold hearings to question Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch because "Republicans believe that the FBI and DOJ — the top people — took the law in their own hands because they wanted Clinton to win and Trump to lose." (If so, they had a funny way of showing it. The FBI publicly sabotaged Clinton's campaign and kept the blockbuster investigation into Trump's collusion with the Russian government under wraps. That illogic hasn't stopped the right from promulgating this absurd conspiracy theory.)
After Comey was cleared by the DOJ inspector general at the end of August, Graham took to Sean Hannity's show on Fox to declare that he planned to "investigate the investigators," promising to call former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. In early November, he announced to Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business he would insist that the whistleblower in the Ukraine scandal be called before his committee to testify. Now he says that he is going to call Hunter Biden.
You may have noticed that none of these hearings, or any hint of a real investigation, have come to pass. It is highly likely that Graham has discovered that his father-figure Donald Trump doesn't have much of an attention span. As we have learned from the bribery scheme with the Ukrainian president, if all Graham wants to do is keep his big, strong, president happy he can just keep appearing on Fox and announcing investigations that never happen. That may be the best we can hope for at this point.