U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has emerged as one of Donald Trump’s staunchest allies and most loyal defenders.
But on Monday morning, the South Carolina Republican accused the president of misleading the American people.
“Dangerous,” “unnerving to its core” and “a disaster in the making” were phrases Graham used to describe Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria on grounds the war has been won against the radical terrorist group known as ISIS.
“The biggest lie being told by the administration is that ISIS has been defeated,” Graham said in a phone interview aired live on Fox and Friends. “To say to the American people that ISIS is defeated is just not true.”
This is the latest chapter in a long-simmering foreign policy feud between Trump — who campaigned in 2016 on a non-interventionist military platform — and Graham — a defense hawk who believes the United States has a role to play in maintaining peace and stability overseas.
It is also the most recent example of the limits of Graham’s influence within Trump’s inner circle of advisers and confidants, particularly regarding national security and immigration.
Late last year, when Trump announced his plans to authorize an immediate, full-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Graham was deeply rattled.
Saying that ISIS still posed a very real threat, both to the region and the United States, Graham argued the move would be seen as a breach of trust with the Kurdish allies who have been fighting ISIS along U.S. troops in the region.
Trump ultimately backed off the decision. Nearly 10 months later, Graham said he “woke up this morning” to the news that the plan appeared to be back on.
“The (2016) campaign is over,” Graham told Fox and Friends. “I expect the American president to do what’s in our national security interests. It’s never in our national security interests to abandon an ally who has helped us fight ISIS. It is never in our national security interests to create conditions for the reemergence of ISIS.”
‘I’ve tried to help him’
Graham’s response to Trump on Monday was striking on several fronts.
First, it’s always notable when Graham, Trump’s frequent golfing companion, chooses to take Trump to task in public forums the president closely monitors: Twitter and Fox.
“It is never wise to abandon an ally who has sacrificed on your behalf. It is never wise to repeat the mistakes of your predecessor. It is never wise to outsource American national security to Turkey or any other nation,” Graham tweeted, perhaps in response to Trump’s tweet alluding to his own “great and unmatched wisdom.”
Second, Graham is threatening to directly rebuke Trump by co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to impose sanctions on Turkey if the country attacks the Kurds, who U.S. troops had been working to protect against Turkish aggression.
But in a more dramatic noticeable shift from prior policy disagreements, where Graham sought to attribute the president’s actions to bad advice from his inner circle, Graham on Monday suggested Trump was himself at fault.
In the Fox and Friends interview, Graham said he would be “shocked” if Trump was encouraged by his national security team to take this action, adding that “this impulsive decision by the president has undone all the gains we’ve made (and) thrown the region into chaos.”
Still, Graham took pains on Monday to signal to Trump that he was still an ally where it mattered, most notably when it comes to protecting the president against congressional Democrats’ efforts to remove him from the Oval Office.
“This whole thing with the whistle blower is a political setup,” Graham told Fox and Friends, alluding to the Ukrainian call that is now Democrats’ justification for impeachment proceedings. “I like President Trump. I’ve tried to help him.”
Graham acknowledged that the ISIS-controlled Caliphate had been destroyed, an accomplishment Trump has highlighted.
He also sought to appeal to Trump’s ego by tweeting about President Barack Obama’s “disastrous” foreign policy decisions regarding the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Iraq.
“Unlike President Obama,” Graham tweeted, “I hope President Trump will reassess and take sound military advice.”
Meanwhile, if Trump lashes back out at Graham on social media, Graham probably won’t be alone in enduring the president’s wrath: opposition to the troop withdrawal decision Monday was widespread and bipartisan, drawing concerns from congressional leaders in both parties and chambers and 2020 presidential candidates alike.