In an interview with Newsmax that aired on Tuesday, Donald Trump leveled the ultimate insult at Lindsey Graham: He called the South Carolina senator a “RINO,” or “Republican in name only.” Trump was responding to Graham’s assertion that it was “inappropriate” for the ex-president to dangle pardons for those who committed crimes to keep him in power. Reports on Trump’s comments described them as a serious act of aggression: The ex-president had “blasted,” “turned on,” “mercilessly mocked,” or even “savaged” one of his closest allies. This is a rational conclusion to draw when you one Republican politician call another a “RINO.” But the reaction also tells me that most people haven’t been following the twisted Trump-Graham drama, since for them this latest exchange almost counts as pleasant.
Let’s review the tape. Sunday on Face the Nation, Graham was shown footage of Trump saying at a rally the previous night, “If I run, and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly. And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons.”
When asked if he agreed, Graham said, “No, I don’t want to send any signal that it was okay to defile the Capitol.” Then he immediately pivoted to attacking “other groups” on the left, as well as Kamala Harris.
When host Margaret Brennan interrupted Graham, asking, “Isn’t it a dangerous thing to say?” he responded, “Yeah, well, I think it’s inappropriate,” then went back to lambasting the vice-president. He concluded by saying of the January 6 protesters (without mentioning Trump), “I hope they go to jail and get the book thrown at them because they deserve it.”
When asked to respond to Graham on Newsmax, Trump said calmly, “Well, Lindsey Graham’s wrong. I mean, Lindsey’s a nice guy, but he’s a RINO. Lindsey’s wrong.” For the next two and a half minutes, Trump castigated the Capitol Police officer who fatally shot rioter Ashli Babbitt, echoed Graham’s criticism of Harris and the ostensibly lenient treatment of “radical left” groups, and defended the January 6 rioters as “patriots.” Trump briefly came back to Graham at the end of this chilling clip, saying the senator “doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about if he says that.”
Trump’s remarks about Graham are the least remarkable part of the video; these two have said and done considerably worse things to each other in the past year, as I summed up last month:
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.
Yet while all this was unfolding, Trump and Graham have continued to golf together, the true marker of Republican male companionship. They even hosted a golfing fundraiser together in May. Days after Trump declared that Graham should be “ashamed” of himself, the senator said he hopes Trump runs for president again. Graham has continued publicly singing Trump’s praises and promoting his pet causes, suggesting on Hannity recently that Mitch McConnell’s days as Republican leader are numbered if he won’t bend to the former president’s will. And Trump appears to still enjoy Graham’s company. (Though he hasn’t been very vocal about it; “I mean, Lindsey’s a nice guy” may be the most positive thing he’s said about the senator of late.)
I know none of this really makes sense. Graham’s tempestuous friendships with various political “alpha dogs” (his term) have been well documented, but his relationship with Trump has always been especially weird. Remember when Oprah dismissed rumors that she’s gay by saying of her friendship with Gayle King, “There isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women”? Trump and Graham are kind of the Bizarro World version of that; there isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between a politician and his lackey. But it endures.