Red Flags From Lindsey Graham’s Fickle Friendships

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

You’ve just been elected to Congress and settled into your new life as a hotshot politician. One day, you’re walking down the magnificent halls of the Capitol and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina approaches you with a big smile. He welcomes you to the club, sweet-talking you in his smooth southern drawl, and tells you to reach out to him if you need anything at all. Have I made my first friend in Washington, D.C.? You ask yourself. Can I trust ol’ Lindsey to be there for me? The short answer: no, absolutely not. Graham has a habit of cozying up to powerful figures he calls “alpha dogs” — men like Joe Biden, John McCain, and Donald Trump — then angering them with his fickle behavior. But if you decide to pursue the friendship anyway, here’s what you can expect.

He’ll give you a lot of mixed signals

If Lindsey Graham’s relationship with former president Donald Trump tells us anything, it’s that he can be very hot and cold when it comes to friendship. A few months before the 2016 election, Graham proclaimed, “I’m not supporting Mr. Trump.” This came after the candidate read out Graham’s personal phone number during a televised rally and urged his supporters to give the senator a call. Graham went on to criticize Trump for racistly suggesting that a judge was unable to do his job impartially on account of his Mexican heritage. “It’s a new low. I think it’s un-American,” the senator said. (On Election Night 2016, Graham wrote on Twitter that he voted for Evan McMullin.)

Fast-forward to 2017: Graham and his former enemy Donald Trump are hitting the golf course together and the senator is tweeting about how he had a blast. Suddenly, he’s the biggest cheerleader for Trump, whom he called a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” just two years earlier.

In 2019, when Mark Leibovich of The New York Times Magazine asked Graham about his relationship with Trump, he said, “I personally like him. We play golf. He’s very nice to me … I want him to be successful under terms that I think are good for the country.”

But a friendship between two major drama queens is bound to have its ups and downs. In her memoir I’ll Take Your Questions Now, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham says that Graham “seemed almost schizophrenic” in his attitude toward the president. “Some days he would be one of Trump’s most vigorous defenders; other days he was a harsh critic,” she writes. “People around the president would tell him that he couldn’t trust Graham, but Trump seemed to like him for whatever reason and I often wondered if he sought Lindsey’s approval.”

The new book Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, claims that after the 2020 election, Graham called up Trump to criticize him for promoting bogus voter-fraud claims, among other things, which infuriated the former president. “You fucked up,” the senator reportedly said before Trump hung up on him. After that information was made public, Trump released a statement accusing Graham and other Republicans of “letting the Democrats get away with the greatest Election Hoax in history — a total con job!” Weirdly, Lindsey responded last week by telling the press that he hopes Trump runs for president again in 2024.

So if Lindsey Graham tries to be your friend, you should know that there will be a fair amount of friction, and your interactions will be totally unpredictable.

He’s going to talk shit about the people you love

Many moons ago, Lindsey Graham was actually known as one of the Republican senators most likely to seek bipartisan compromise, and he counted among his friends Joe Biden and others on the opposite side of the aisle. (“It’s like the guy I knew got kidnapped and his twin brother showed up,” a Democratic senator told BuzzFeed.) But Graham has destroyed several of those relationships with his relentless shit-talking — including, notably, his friendship with Dr. Jill Biden. Graham has described our current First Lady as “an outstanding person who has led a consequential life.” However, he has also called for special counsel to look into her stepson Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and said that without her husband Joe Biden, ISIS would not exist.

When asked about her onetime friendship with the South Carolina senator, the First Lady said in February that she found his attacks on her family unconscionable. “I don’t know what happened to Lindsey,” she explained. “We used to be great friends … Now he’s changed … It’s hard when you consider somebody a friend and they’ve said so many negative things. That’s been a little hurtful.”

He thinks it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission

Graham could have pivoted to being a die-hard Trump lackey and cut his losses, but he still wants to be liked by his left-leaning former friends. The New York Times recently revealed that days after the 2020 election, the senator made an audacious attempt to win back the Bidens. Though Graham was publicly supporting Trump’s quest to overturn the election at the time, he called up President-elect Joe Biden “​​to revive a friendship damaged by his call for a special prosecutor to investigate the overseas business dealings of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter.” He explained that he had only gone after Biden’s troubled son to appease Trump supporters in South Carolina.

Unsurprisingly, Graham’s plea for forgiveness was totally ineffective. “Lindsey’s been a personal disappointment,” the president said after the phone call, “because I was a personal friend of his.”

He might lash out if he doesn’t get his way

It doesn’t seem like Graham took Biden’s refusal to forgive him well. Less than a year after his attempt to patch things up, the senator began calling for Biden’s impeachment. Citing the disastrous way the president chose to pull out of Afghanistan, the senator said in August, “I think Joe Biden deserves to be impeached.” And last week, he added the situation at the southern border to Biden’s rap sheet.

This, of course, is a classic Lindsey 180! In 2015, he said, “If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, then you’ve got a problem. You need to do some self-evaluation. ’Cause what’s not to like?” Graham is a man of contradictions.

He probably won’t have your back

Graham betraying Biden, who is now his political enemy, is one thing, but the senator also mounted a less-than-impressive defense when a certain fellow Republican came after his No. 1 bestie, John McCain. Years ago, McCain, Graham, and extreme centrist Joe Lieberman called themselves “the three amigos.” They went on boys’ trips to Afghanistan and Iraq together. Graham’s relationship with McCain was particularly close. He called the late Arizona senator “one of my dearest friends in the world” and said, “I love him to death.” But Graham wasn’t going to let one of the most important relationships of his life get in the way of his budding bromance with Donald Trump.

To refresh your memory, Trump had a special disdain for McCain, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for over five years. During the 2016 primaries, Trump said of the then–Arizona senator, “He’s not a war hero … I like people who weren’t captured.” Even after McCain died in 2018, Trump kept attacking him. The then-president reminded everyone that he “wasn’t a fan of John McCain,” resisted ordering the lowering of flags to half-staff, and complained that he didn’t get a thank you for giving the late senator “the kind of funeral that he wanted.”

Now, if someone talked this much shit about my best friend who had just died, I would be outraged. I would defend their honor. I imagine you would react like that too. But, publicly at least, Lindsey Graham didn’t seem all that upset about what Trump said. “I don’t like what he says about John McCain,” Graham said in 2019. “But when we play golf, it’s fun. And I think he’s seen my ability to help him, that I can actually help put deals together.”

So if Lindsey Graham tries to befriend you, you need to know that things are going to be dramatic, he will hurt your feelings, and he won’t be much use if you need to take on your nemesis. Personally, I’d keep him at a distance.

Red Flags From Lindsey Graham’s Fickle Friendships