On Wednesday night, Lindsey Graham either warned, slammed, or threatened Mitch McConnell (depending on the news outlet), declaring on Hannity that his future as leader of the Senate Republicans will be in jeopardy if he doesn’t make amends with Donald Trump.
“I like Senator McConnell,” Graham told the Fox News host. “But here’s the question: Can Senator McConnell effectively work with the leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump? … I’m not going to vote for anybody for leader of the Senate as a Republican unless they can prove to me that they can advocate an America First agenda and have a working relationship with President Trump, because if you can’t do that, you will fail.”
Politico Playbook called these remarks “somewhat surprising,” as Graham and McConnell are often allies, and the South Carolina senator knows “that the GOP leader has shown no indication that he wants to make peace with the former president.” Certainly, Graham’s long-term strategy here is murky. Trump has been lobbing attacks at McConnell for the last year, claiming that “virtually everyone in the Republican Party” wants him ousted as GOP leader. While various Fox News hosts have echoed Trump’s messaging, so far the former president’s stance has only been adopted by three people with a (potential) say in whether McConnell gets reelected: 2022 Senate hopefuls Eric Greitens and Kelly Tshibaka … and Graham. The senator issued a similar warning last month on Fox News Sunday, which McConnell appeared to ignore.
So why is Graham escalating his threat by repeating it to Sean Hannity? Aaron Blake of the Washington Post suggests that Graham “seems to be trying to push McConnell to give in to Trump as much as anything, before the situation gets out of hand.” As New York’s Ed Kilgore has previously noted, while there’s little precedent for a defenestration of a Senate party leader, it is plausible that Trump could push McConnell out — but the situation probably wouldn’t come to a head for years:
If Republicans fall short of taking back the Senate in 2022 (particularly if the GOP is romping to victory elsewhere), the disappointment might be enough to give front-bench Republican senators like Graham an opportunity to take a long look at securing fresh leadership. And if Trump does triumphantly return to the White House in 2024, he can probably instruct the troops on Capitol Hill to do whatever he wants, which would probably mean retirement for McConnell (who will be 82 that year in any event).
I don’t pretend to understand Graham’s long-term political machinations, but I do feel qualified to assess the drama when the senior citizens running our government start acting like high-schoolers. And it seems what’s happening right now, at the most basic level, is that McConnell is getting caught up in the twisted saga that is Graham and Trump’s friendship.
Graham has had bizarre relationships with various D.C. “alpha dogs,” as he describes them, but in the past year his relationship to the former president has taken some exceptionally odd turns. Graham dramatically broke with Trump in the aftermath of the Capitol riot, declaring on the Senate floor, “All I can say is count me out. Enough is enough.” And the book Peril revealed that Graham later called up Trump to criticize his bogus voter-fraud claims; “You fucked up,” Graham reportedly said, prompting Trump to hang up on him. In September, Trump released a statement saying Graham and Senator Mike Lee “should be ashamed of themselves” for not backing his election lies. In November, the former president issued a similar condemnation of McConnell and other “RINOs” who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, including Graham.
A reasonable person might conclude that Graham and Trump aren’t friends anymore, but that’s not how these two operate. Three days after Trump released a statement bashing him in September, Graham said he hopes he runs for president again. And it seems the pair never stopped hitting the links together: The senator held a golfing fundraiser with the former president in May, and Graham told Axios that he’d urged Trump to cancel his January 6 anniversary press conference when the subject came up over a recent golf match in West Palm Beach. During another golf outing in early fall, Graham actually attempted to patch things up between McConnell and Trump, per The Hill:
“Lindsey was with the president this last weekend. From what I understand Trump said something complimentary about Mitch,” said a GOP senator, who described Graham’s efforts to help bury the hatchet between McConnell and Trump.
Another senator confirmed that Trump conceded to Graham that McConnell had indeed helped him at key moments, even though Trump now bashes McConnell regularly in public statements.
Asked why Trump continues to attack McConnell even though he acknowledges he was a helpful ally while in office, the GOP lawmaker only gave a perplexed shrug.
Graham appears to be intent on saying whatever he thinks his pal Trump wants to hear in his public appearances, even if contradicts what he said just weeks earlier. Whenever there’s a story involving this duo, “perplexed shrug” is the most appropriate response.