News & Politics

Lindsey Graham Thought He Had Trump Tamed—but Got Played Instead

Graham and Dick Durbin thought that they had a DACA deal with Trump—classic case of smart men, foolish choices.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Poor Lindsey Graham. The "maverick" senator from South Carolina had spent the last two years expressing his scorn for Donald Trump,  calling him "unfit" and "a kook." Then, sometime in the late summer, Graham apparently reconciled himself to the fact that Trump wasn't capable of growing or "pivoting" into the job, so he took it upon himself to cultivate the mercurial manchild, perhaps in the vainglorious belief he could influence Trump to become a mainstream conservative and stamp out the rapidly burning fuse that was going to blow up the presidency and likely the entire Republican Party.

Graham played golf with his president, he complimented him on his swing, he flattered his intelligence and he even agreed to throw some red meat at the base on Trump's behalf by taking up the ridiculous crusade to jail Hillary Clinton. He cajoled and he petted and he whispered the sweet nothings that the president needs to hear to make him feel powerful. Graham thought Trump trusted him and looked to him for guidance. He thought he could speak for the president in negotiations.

He was wrong -- and it was proven in classic Trump fashion last week. Like so many of Trump's close confidantes before him, Graham was stabbed in the back by the man he thought he was guiding. He was outmaneuvered by other "guides" who understand the dark impulses that drive their leader much better than Graham ever will.

Graham and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., along with a few others, have been working for months on a bipartisan immigration deal that would save the young DACA recipients from being deported by Trump's ICE agents after his abrupt cancellation of their program. In a televised meeting last Tuesday, this group all believed they had received guidelines from the president. By Thursday, they came up with a tentative compromise deal. Graham and Durbin called Trump at 10 a.m. He sounded enthusiastic and told the two senators to come up to the White House at noon to talk about it.

When the bipartisan duo got there, the room had been stacked with hardline anti-immigration right-wingers, led by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, whom staffers had hurriedly called to get to the meeting and help run interference.

According to The Washington Post, Chief of Staff John Kelly (a well-known anti-immigrant zealot from way back) got in the president's ear and worked him up so much that when Graham and Durbin showed up to find they'd been sandbagged, he was already fuming. That's when he went off about not wanting any more immigrants from "shithole" countries. Graham and Durbin tried to fight for their deal, but they had been outplayed.

It turns out that Graham's not the only one who is trying to manipulate this president. The old-guard Breitbart "base whisperers" Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka have been supplanted by Kelly and professional hard-right extremists like Cotton, Perdue, Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions, with backup from Trump's "candyman," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. They were more than willing to appeal shamelessly to Trump's racist id to get what they wanted. They knew it was what he really wanted too.

This bunch evidently told Trump "the base" would be thrilled if he rejected "shithole" immigrants, and he was so proud of himself for doing it, at least at first, that he called up his friends to see how they thought it was playing. It was only later that he realized he'd caused an international incident and destroyed the best hope of a bipartisan deal.

What happens now is anybody's guess. The deadline to fix this DACA problem is fast approaching and the government will shut down at the end of the week if the Congress fails to act on a budget. At the moment it's a standoff, with Republicans (and some members of the press) absurdly insisting that the Democrats will be responsible for a shutdown if they hold out for the DACA fix, even though the Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House and can pass any bill they actually agree on. If the government turns off the lights this week, the GOP leadership needs to talk to the Republicans who refuse to vote for their own bill.

The other important question for the country is how we can preserve our democracy when one of the major parties has decided that it would rather accommodate and manipulate an unfit, unqualified and unstable president in pursuit of its white nationalist agenda than do its constitutional duty.

That's what's known as selling your soul. It would be one thing if "shithole" was the only offensive racist comment Trump has ever made. But it isn't even close.

Trump is also wholly corrupt, making millions of dollars servicing his "brand" as president. He refuses to release any information about his finances and is under intense scrutiny by the press and possibly law enforcement for past dealings that look an awful lot like money laundering for foreign criminals.

He's got absolutely no knowledge of policy, or ability to learn about it, and his nepotistic, amateurish White House is in a constant state of chaos. Trump acts belligerent toward America's allies and weirdly friendly toward many of its adversaries. He uses his Twitter feed to spew juvenile insults and, in some cases, alarming threats of nuclear war.

Trump has been credibly accused of sexual assault by nearly 20 women and was revealed just this week to have paid porn stars to keep silent about his sexual escapades with them, possibly lending credence to charges that he was a potential target of blackmail.

He is the subject of the first counterespionage investigation ever launched against a president over suspicions that he conspired with the Russian government to win the presidential election. There is ample evidence that he has obstructed justice trying to stop the probe.

If Republican officials have decided to overlook all that, it's hard to imagine what it would take to get them to do their duty.

Tuesday's Senate testimony by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had poor Lindsey Graham lamenting:

[Last] Tuesday we had a president who I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan ... but he also understood the idea that we had to do it with compassion. I don't know where that guy went. I want him back.

That guy never existed. The president of the United States is a man named Donald Trump. He is a racist and a xenophobe, and the vast majority of the Republican Congress doesn't have a problem with that. In fact, they've eagerly signed on to the Trump crusade. Who's manipulating whom?

 

 

 

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Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.