There is little question Sen. Lindsey Graham has planted himself in the president’s inner orbit as an informal and influential adviser on politics and policy.
But the South Carolina Republican is still only “82 percent” supportive of a commander-in-chief who wants him to be “a 100 percent guy.”
At least that’s according to Trump, as relayed in Bob Woodward’s explosive new book on the Trump presidency.
By appealing directly to Trump’s ego, Graham has over a year and a half earned and maintained a seat at Trump’s ever-shifting table — and summonses to the Oval Office, invitations to the golf course, even an offer to be the ambassador to Pakistan.
Woodward’s “Fear,” released on Tuesday, uses largely anonymous sources to portray a White House in constant disarray, a place where aides and associates are relentlessly seeking to stop a volatile president from making rash, and perhaps dangerously consequential, decisions.
In the dozens of pages featuring Graham, Woodward shows how the veteran political operator has sought to steer Trump towards embracing the senator’s own agenda — with mixed results.
The “82 percent” relationship goes back to their very first meeting at the White House in March 2017, following months on end where Graham would call Trump a pox on the Republican Party and unfit to serve in office. Graham accepted an invitation to eat lunch with the president to put aside differences. Trump greeted Graham with a hug.
“We’ve got to be friends,” Trump said. “You are going to be my friend.”
Graham agreed. He had even prepared what Woodward referred to a “little speech” about how only Trump, who Graham called the ultimate “deal maker,” could right the ship of a dysfunctional Congress.
“Do you want me to help you?” Graham asked.
Trump said yes.
From that point on, in Woodward’s account, Graham successfully lobbied for Trump to order more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Graham unsuccessfully recommended the United States help China assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “and replace him with a North Korean general (the U.S.) can control.”
On many occasions, Graham has played the role of teacher to Trump’s impressionable student.
“You’ve got to tell (Trump) how this ends,” Vice President Mike Pence told Graham at one point regarding the war in Afghanistan.
“It never ends,” Graham told Trump. “It’s good versus evil. Good versus evil never ends.”
And Graham has often tried, as others have, to talk Trump off proverbial ledges.
“Can we change the libel laws?” Trump asked at one point, irked by media criticism.
“No,” Graham said.
In “Fear,” Graham is shown seeking to use his access to Trump to get him to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. As he peddled a compromise through the corridors of the White House, Graham at times gave the impression he had, according to Woodward, “moved in” to the West Wing.
During that time, he entered into an alliance with Steve Bannon, at the time Trump’s chief strategist who vehemently opposed any immigration proposal that would provide undocumented immigrants a pathway to legal status.
Before Bannon’s ouster in August 2017, he and Graham were speaking “nearly every day.” Among other topics of conversation, Woodward said the two men discussed how to oust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — though Graham told McClatchy last week he and Bannon actually became close during the time Graham was trying to get a vote for his Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill and was always “pro-Mitch.” Graham’s health care proposal was not mentioned in “Fear.”
On immigration, Graham ultimately ran up against the limits of his influence. In early January 2018, Trump ultimately caved to his hard-right advisers, and Graham, enraged, confirmed reports that the president had referred to Haiti and certain African nations as “shitholes” during a private White House meeting with members of Congress and cabinet officials.
“I didn’t say some of the things that he said I did,” Trump reportedly told Graham, referring to Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who took the closed-door remarks public.
“Yeah, you did,” Graham replied.
“Well, some people like what I said,” Trump said.
“I’m not one of them. I want to help you. I like playing golf with you,” said Graham. “But if that’s the price of admission, count me out.”
Though this is the last Graham reference in Woodward’s book, it was not the last instance of Graham being a force in Trump’s universe. In the seven months since, Graham has continued to join Trump for golf, offer him advice, support his priorities and praise him on Twitter. Recently, and most notably, he said he’d support Trump firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But there’s little evidence to suggest that Trump now sees Graham as “100 percent” loyal, as he said that December 2017 day on the golf course.
“You’re a very good commander in chief,” (Graham) told Trump as they played their round. “You’re cleaning up the mess that Obama left you.”
“You’re a middle-of-the-road guy,” Trump reportedly said in response. “I want you to be 100 percent for Trump ... You’re like 82 percent.”
“Well, some days I”m 100 percent. Some days I may be zero.”
“I want you to be a 100 percent guy.”
“Presidents need people that can tell them the truth as they see it,” Graham replied. “It’s up to you to see if I’m full of shit.”