In the Trump era, Lindsey Graham has revealed that some of his political opinions are a tad opportunistic. Four years ago, the South Carolina senator told CNN, “You know how to make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” Today, he obsequiously praises the president — and the president’s golf courses — on a near-constant basis. In 1999, Graham insisted that a president “doesn’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic.” Today, Graham argues that it was so unjustifiable for Nancy Pelosi to launch an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump — merely because the president is openly trying to coerce foreign governments into investigating his top rivals in the 2020 election — that the probe is best described as a “witch hunt.”
Nevertheless, as of this morning, Graham did appear to have some genuine ideological commitments. The neoconservative senator has been an unwavering advocate for any and all American military interventions abroad, and a hawkish critic of Iran’s Islamist regime. And when fealty to Trump and adherence to neoconservative orthodoxy have come into conflict, Graham has generally prioritized the latter. After the president gave Turkish president Recep Erdogan the green light to invade Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria this week, Graham tweeted, “Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration. This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS.”
But a newly released prank call suggests that even Graham’s foreign-policy principles may be up for negotiation. Back in August, the infamous Russian pranksters (and/or Russian intelligence operatives) Alexey Stolyarov and Vladimir Kuznetsov gave Graham’s office a ring. Stolyarov claimed to be the Turkish minister of defense, and Graham took him at his word. Over the ensuing conversation, the South Carolina senator expressed sympathy with Turkey’s Kurdish problem, and affirmed that America’s Kurdish allies in Syria did pose a “threat” to Erdogan’s government. As Politico reports:
“Your YPG Kurdish problem is a big problem,” Graham told the pranksters. He was referring to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a group that began fighting ISIS as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 — with support from the U.S. — but is considered a terrorist group by Turkey because of its push to establish an autonomous state for the Kurds on the Turkish-Syrian border.
“I told President Trump that Obama made a huge mistake in relying on the YPG Kurds,” Graham continued. “Everything I worried about has come true, and now we have to make sure Turkey is protected from this threat in Syria. I’m sympathetic to the YPG problem, and so is the president, quite frankly.”
To be sure, public words on this matter count for more than private ones to a Turkish official. And it is possible for Graham to be sympathetic to Erdogan’s concerns while still opposing the Turkish president’s invasion. Nevertheless, the call suggests that Graham’s views on the Kurds may be highly dependent on what he believes a given audience wishes to hear.
Another suspect excerpt from the call concerns the newly infamous case of Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab. Zarrab was arrested in 2016, on allegations that he had used his network of companies to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions. Last year, Zarrab pleaded guilty and testified against Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the leader of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank. Atilla was later convicted of helping Iran evade sanctions. Zarrab also testified that Erdogan had known of the money-laundering operation and supported it. Before the plea, Erdogan had fought for Zarrab’s release through diplomatic channels, ostensibly because he wished to avoid the airing of such allegations against himself.
Given the Trump administration’s fiercely anti-Iran foreign policy — and the president’s frequent laments about Barack Obama’s criminal failure to starve Tehran of funds — you might think that this White House would have no interest in making Zarrab’s life easier. But you would be wrong (because Zarrab hired Rudy Giuliani as his lawyer).
On Wednesday night, Bloomberg revealed that in 2017 Trump had asked former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to tell the DOJ to get off Zarrab’s back. Tillerson refused on the grounds that Trump’s request constituted obstruction of justice.
In his phone call with the pranksters in August, Graham assured the fake Turkish defense minister that his party’s leader was doing everything in his power to help a man who had subverted U.S. sanctions against Iran escape justice (I personally regard those sanctions themselves as unjust, but Graham and Trump ostensibly do not share that view).
“And this case involving the Turkish bank, he’s very sensitive to that,” Graham said, referring to the Zarrab case, according to Politico. “The president wants to be helpful, within the limits of his power.”
Again, it is possible that Graham was just being diplomatic here. But given how flexible his views have proven on other matters, it seems fair to suspect that the South Carolina senator could refashion himself as an apologist for Kurd-killers and Iranian money-launderers, as long as the price was right.