He traded his honor to be “relevant” as a Trump adviser. But on Syria, Trump didn’t bother to ask what he thought.
It was a cri de cœur from Lindsey Graham, the lament of the sycophant scorned.
President Trump’s decision to abandon our Kurdish allies in Syria by leaving them undefended against a Turkish invasion was, Graham tweeted, “a disaster” and a “nightmare.”
“President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam,” he wrote pointedly of his good friend. “They are NOT tired of fighting us.” And he commented on the signal Trump’s decision sent to the world: “By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways.“
In his cruelest cut of all, he compared Trump to Barack Obama. “No matter what President Trump is saying about his decision,” wrote Graham on Twitter, “it is EXACTLY what President Obama did in Iraq with even more disastrous consequences for our national security.”
Graham’s disappointment was palpable, but understandable, given all that he has given up to avoid this moment.
For the last several years, Graham has transformed himself from one of Trump’s fiercest critics, into one of his most reflexive defenders. Even by the cynical and shape-shifting standards of Washington, Graham’s metamorphosis has been a thing of wonder. The senator once known as John McCain’s best friend in the Senate, transformed himself into Trump’s shinebox, willing to ingratiate himself with rationalizations and praise even as Trump became increasingly erratic.
At first, it was a mere curiosity. During the 2016 campaign, Graham had called Trump a “nutjob” and a loser,” as well as a “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” He predicted that if the GOP nominated him, “we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it.”
But as McCain faded from the scene, Graham seemed to shift his affections to the man who so publicly insulted McCain.
Graham and Trump became a thing. They played golf. They talked on the phone. And an alliance of the oddest imaginable bedfellows was born.
In moments of candor, Graham tried to explain the deal he thought he was making. When Mark Leibovich asked him earlier this year what had happened to him, Graham explained:
“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.
I asked what “this” was. “ ‘This,’ ” Graham said, “is to try to be relevant.” Politics, he explained, was the art of what works and what brings desired outcomes. “I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he told me.
Like many others in his party, staying “relevant” was central to their political calculations. Capitulating to Trump meant that Graham would become a rock star in the increasingly Trumpist party and virtually assured of re-election in South Carolina next year.
He would also have the president’s ear. And this was at the heart of Graham’s Bargain.
Graham told himself: by staying close to Trump, he could influence him and prevent horribly bad decisions. Others made the same calculation, but Graham made the uber-tradeoff, because the stakes were so high. What did it matter if he had to endure temporary embarrassments, abase himself on cable television, or even become a political punchline, if he could stop Trump from impulsive decisions regarding Russia or North Korea? Or Syria?
The world saw Graham as a craven, cringing Uriah Heep. Graham saw himself as someone who could save the world, or at least the Kurds.
Graham calculated: If he didn’t play golf with Trump and indulge his penchant for pillow talk, Trump would be putting and chatting with Rand Paul, listening to the counsels of isolationism, appeasement and international amorality. He was not simply the adult in the room; he was the adult BFF in the room, who would temper Trump’s worst instincts.
And then came Trump’s decision.
Despite Graham’s compulsive turd-polishing of the last few years, Trump didn’t even consult him before making the decision to abandon the Kurds. Graham, who had given up so much self-respect to prevent just this outcome, was not even in the room. He didn’t even get a text.
This is the thing about Faustian bargains. The price is high and the rewards turn out to be illusory. They end badly.
This week, Lindsey Graham, found that out the hard way. I wonder what they’ll talk about the next time they go golfing together.