For several weeks now, the political class has made a parlor game of guessing why Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) so obsequiously reversed his long-held misgivings about President Trump.
Graham’s about face began pretty early in the Trump presidency, but gained widespread attention at the end of November, shortly after he told CNN, “what concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label [Trump] some kind of kook not fit to be president.” Enterprising reporters quickly dug up this Graham quote from February 2016—“I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office”—and the jokes wrote themselves.
Even before then, though, Graham had become one of the most innovative participants in the Republican Party’s efforts to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian election meddling investigation, and to help Trump cover up his campaign’s complicity in that influence operation. He has made baseless calls for multiple, diversionary special counsel investigations of Democrats and Hillary Clinton, and more recently referred Christopher Steele—a former British intelligence officer who blew the whistle on the Trump campaign—to the FBI to be criminally investigated on the basis of secret evidence. In between, he tweeted a commercial endorsement of one of Trump’s golf clubs.
Because Graham is chatty with the press, and has a not-inconsequential history of taking heterodox stances on major policy issues, he has benefited from a widespread impulse to interpret his behavior in the most generous possible light. Graham insists he has cozied up to the president to influence national policy, including immigration policy, and most political observers have been happy to accept his explanation.
Maybe Graham is telling the truth, and maybe he isn’t, but either way, the ongoing “shithole countries” fiasco underscores something that should have been clear to all thinking Republicans a long time ago: Debasing yourself for the opportunity to bend Trump’s ear is an extremely stupid idea that will leave you debased without the upside of lasting presidential attention or loyalty. By the same token, the Republican congressional leaders who have given Trump free rein to engage in unprecedented corruption, in tacit exchange for control over the policymaking process, have assumed all the downside of complicity in Trump’s crimes without securing the means of assuring Trump won’t foul up policy anyhow. They have all committed reputational suicide-by-Trump, in exchange for practically nothing. As a result, Graham stands to be outflanked by people who are willing to be more shameless than he is, and who will in turn trap their weak leaders into shutting down their own government by the end of the week.
The Lindsey Graham Theory of Groveling suffers from two obvious weaknesses that, when combined, fatally undermine it. First, Graham isn’t the only powerful person who seeks to curry favor with Trump by sucking up to him and abetting his misconduct. Second—in both the retelling of those around him, and in a recent, televised meeting with lawmakers at the White House—Trump has proven to be wildly manipulable, careening between incompatible positions whenever he engages new stakeholders. Trump is regularly driven to undermine his administration by Fox News hosts, who know Trump mindlessly live tweets their shows, and thus tailor their programming to influence administration policy and messaging.
Graham has thus humiliated himself for the most fleeting of rewards: convincing Trump of things that a person with less heterodox views can unconvince him of just as quickly.
On Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)—another Trump foe turned Trump yes-man—exploited this vulnerability in Trump’s very stable mind to sabotage Graham, a colleague with whom he has feuded for years. On Meet the Press, Paul suggested to Trump that Graham was behaving hypocritically.
“[T]here are two different standards here,” Paul said. “In 2013, Lindsey Graham said the exact same thing the president did, but he used the [term] hell-hole. ‘We can’t have everybody coming from every hell-hole on the planet here.’ And now everybody thinks Lindsey Graham’s a great statesman because he’s put out this thing about American ideals, and stuff, which was a good statement, but he said almost the identical thing to the president in 2013. So I think we have a selective remembering.”
By all accounts, Graham arrived at the White House on Thursday for an immigration meeting convinced that all of his brown-nosing was about to pay off. Instead, he found himself sandbagged by immigration restrictionists and white nationalists who realized Trump was about to cut a deal, and convinced him to reject it by appealing to his long-held view that immigrants from black majority countries are primitive and disgusting.
These other toadies don’t fare much better than Graham does in securing Trump’s loyalty, but they have no dignity left to sacrifice and thus much less to lose. After the “shithole countries” comment reached the public, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA), disgraced themselves by lying promiscuously, and in evolving ways, about what Trump had said. They were rewarded for their dear-leader slavishness with White House leaks acknowledging that Trump had actually said “shithouse countries” rather than “shithole countries.”
If there were a way around these pitfalls, it would run through the Republican congressional leadership. Graham could have used his political clout to ask Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to cut Trump out of the legislative process—including by advancing legislation that both legalizes Dreamers and increases border security spending.
But McConnell and Ryan are too cowardly or cynical or indifferent to use their agenda-setting power in ways that might cross Trump, and know that Trump can upset their best-laid plans simply by tweeting his fleeting opinion. In a different world, they might treat Trump’s obvious befuddlement and naivety as reasons to ignore his interventions, and govern around him. In this world, they are too ineffectual and paralyzed by fear of Trump’s outbursts to negotiate with Democrats in good faith, even when they know they need Democratic votes to keep the government from shutting down.
Trouble for CR:
MEADOWS just now: “Based on the number of no and undecided votes, there is not enough votes for a Republican-only bill.”
— Sarah Ferris (@sarahnferris) January 17, 2018
After a year of abdicating their constitutional obligations on Trump’s behalf, he returns the favor by making routine governance impossible.
The precise mechanisms are different, but in one respect, they’re suffering the same fate as Graham. Like him, they put a career’s worth of political cache on the line for Trump without condition, and in both cases he flushed it unblinkingly down the shithole.