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Ep. 1: The Corruption of Lindsey Graham

July 3, 2023
Notes
Transcript

Lindsey Graham was once one of Donald Trump’s fiercest critics—before becoming one of his most important collaborators. His eventual capitulation is really a story about what happened to the whole Republican Party. The Bulwark Podcast presents The Corruption of Lindsey Graham, with Will Saletan.

Listen to Episode 2.

Read the whole thing at https://thebulwark.com/lindseygraham.

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This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
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    Here’s a scene from long ago. Back when America felt like a pretty safe democracy before it fell into the hands of Donald Trump. It seems like ages ago now, but it was really just seven years. It was January twenty first, twenty sixteen. The scene was a press conference at the United States capital.
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:07
    It’s okay. It’s alright. Alright. The man at the microphone was senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Graham had been running for president until just a few weeks before this press conference.
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:21
    He had dropped out because he couldn’t catch up with the front runners. Trump Ron DeSantis Ted Cruz. Gram couldn’t believe that one of these guys was likely to be the Republican nominee for president. He thought both of them were terrible, he figured that either of them, if they were nominated, would lose the general election. And he drew an interesting analogy.
  • Speaker 3
    0:01:44
    If you now make Trump and cruise, I think you get the same outcome. You know, whether this death by being shot or poisoning, does it really matter?
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:53
    This wasn’t the only time Graham used that analogy. It came up again two months later when he was talking to Trevor Noah, the late night talk show host.
  • Speaker 4
    0:02:02
    Okay, first of all, who is shooting and who’s poisoning between Trump and Coos?
  • Speaker 3
    0:02:06
    Well, Donald is like being shot in the hit. Okay. You might find an anecdote to pour I don’t know, but maybe there’s time.
  • Speaker 4
    0:02:12
    But is I don’t understand. Are you saying Wait,
  • Speaker 3
    0:02:14
    are you saying Are you saying my party is completely screwed up.
  • Speaker 4
    0:02:18
    But then why would you why would you eliminate
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:23
    Everyone had a good laugh about that, but it turned out that, Graham was wrong. Trump wasn’t a shot to the head. He didn’t kill the Republican Party. Graham had it backwards. Trump was the poison.
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:38
    Over the next five years, he completely saturated and corrupted the Republican Party. The party’s leaders had plenty of time to counteract the poison, but they never did. And one reason was that the poison corrupted them slowly. Other Republican politicians, lost the ability to see what they were becoming. They rallied around an authoritarian.
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:02
    They excused authoritarian acts. They embraced authoritarian ideas. This is a story about how that happened. Welcome to the corruption of Lindsey Graham presented by the Bulwark podcast. I’m your host, Will Salatin.
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:33
    Before we start, I should tell you what this series isn’t. It isn’t a rant about Lindsay Graham’s civility or his hypocrisy, and it isn’t a profile of him. Lots of people have written about Graham and Trump. Most of these articles focus on the personal relationship between the two men. They examine the ways in which Graham’s evolution was distinctive But I didn’t start looking into Graham’s career to see what was distinctive about his relationship with Trump.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:04
    What I wanted to understand was what wasn’t distinctive. I wanted to understand how Graham’s story could illuminate what happened to the whole Republican Party. I wanted to understand how the poison worked. So what I embarked on essentially was a history. But it’s a history with a purpose.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:25
    Donald Trump’s assent to the presidency of the United States destroyed the myth that our country was immune to despotism. We are vulnerable, and we need to understand what happened to us so it doesn’t happen again. To write about this period, I chose to focus on Graham. I didn’t choose him because he was folksy or hypocritical or obsequious. I chose him for two reasons.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:54
    First, he was a major player in the Republican Party’s capitulation to Trump. He was at the center of the action. And second, Lindsay Graham loves to talk. He tweets, he does lots of press briefings, and he loves to give interviews. He wants you to know what he’s thinking.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:13
    And because he talked so much, especially on TV and radio, he left behind an enormous record of what he said and thought during the Trump years. Through these records, we can see how he changed, week to week and month to month. We can watch the poison work. So let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s see who Lindsay Graham was before he drank the poison.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:42
    Trump announced his presidential campaign in the summer of twenty fifteen. And right away, Graham recognized how dangerous he was, Trump was a leader of what was then known as the birther movement. He peddled the myth that President Barack Obama was a Muslim and had been born in Kenya. Trump was also a demagogue on immigration. In the speech that kicked off his presidential campaign, he implied that most Mexican immigrants were rapists or drug mules.
  • Speaker 4
    0:06:12
    They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume are good people. But I speak
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:20
    Graham didn’t mince words about Trump’s bigotry. And it only make He called Trump hateful, cruel, a kook, and a demagogue. Here’s what Graham said about Trump in December twenty fifteen.
  • Speaker 3
    0:06:33
    He’s a race baiting xenophobic religious big He doesn’t represent my party. He doesn’t represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for. I’ve been in the airport.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:45
    But Trump wasn’t just a demigod. He was an authoritarian. He wanted to impose his barbaric ideas through the use of force. He said we should use American troops to confiscate oil from other countries. He said we should torture detainees, and kill family members of suspected terrorists.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:06
    He said we should ban Muslims, all Muslims from coming to the United States.
  • Speaker 4
    0:07:11
    Donald j Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:29
    Here’s what Trump said when he was warned that the military might refuse his orders to commit work crimes.
  • Speaker 5
    0:07:36
    General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the US military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorist families and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding. The military will refuse. Because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders. So, what would you do as commander in chief if the US military refuse to carry out those orders.
  • Speaker 4
    0:08:04
    They won’t refuse. They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me.
  • Speaker 5
    0:08:07
    But they’re illegal.
  • Speaker 4
    0:08:09
    We should go for water boarding, I wish you’d go tougher than waterboarding.
  • Speaker 5
    0:08:12
    But targeting terrorist families and
  • Speaker 4
    0:08:16
    and I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re gonna do it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:28
    Gram denounced every one of Trump’s barbaric ideas. He said it was wrong to kill innocent people. To use torture, to steal oil, to execute people without trial, and to ban immigrants based on their religion.
  • Speaker 6
    0:08:42
    I’m running for president of the United States where you can come and worship God your way or not at all. There’s thirty five hundred American Muslims in uniform. What are day fighting for as American Muslims, the same freedoms that you and I enjoy, god bless them.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:00
    Graham didn’t just repudiate Trump. He went after the Republican National Committee and other Republican presidential candidates for failing to join him in repudiating Trump.
  • Speaker 3
    0:09:11
    Where is the party leadership? Is that our position as a party?
  • Speaker 7
    0:09:14
    Not only where is a party leadership. My question to you is Where are the other candidates?
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:19
    Gram understood that his party’s silence, its refusal to stand up to Trump, was dangerous for three reasons The first reason was a lesson that Graham had learned in foreign policy. If you try to appease a bully, you only encourage his aggression. That was how Graham described the other candidates, who ran for president in twenty sixteen, but who shied away from confronting Trump.
  • Speaker 3
    0:09:45
    Everybody else hid in the corner because they were worried about the consequences they’re taken on the bully.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:50
    The second problem with appeasement, according to Graham, was that it corrupted the appeasers. The people who tried to satisfy the bully, This was one of Graham’s most important insights. On December tenth, twenty fifteen, three days after Trump proposed his ban on most Gram was at a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Here’s what Graham told the audience.
  • Speaker 3
    0:10:15
    I’m not afraid of him leaving. You know what I’m afraid of that we’re afraid of him leaving. Let your fear go, folks, says Republicans, don’t worry about winning. Do what’s best for the country, and here’s what will happen. If you actually do best what what’s best for the country, you’ll win.
  • Speaker 3
    0:10:29
    What’s best for America is to stand up in unison and say never condemn religion for the problems of some. Stand up for what makes us great. Tell Donald Trump you’re wrong. Don’t be afraid of him leaving and and losing an election, I’m not afraid of losing an election. I’m afraid of losing our soul.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:52
    But Graham also had a third reason to worry about his party’s appeasement of Trump. The danger wasn’t just coming from Trump, It was coming from Trump’s voters. These people loved Trump’s brashness, his bigotry, and his contempt for rules. The republican leaders who tiptoed around Trump weren’t just afraid of alienating Trump. They were afraid of alienating these voters.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:19
    Gram didn’t want to cater to these people. He basically said that Trump’s voters weren’t the kind of people they’re public and party should build itself around.
  • Speaker 3
    0:11:29
    Well, he’s consolidated all Republicans who think Obama’s a Muslim. And they do it one in Kenya. So whatever block that is is what he’s got. And I’m going for the other crap.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:45
    Gram said it was more important to stand for principle than to cater to these voters. It seems almost quaint now, but There was a Trump campaign event in September twenty fifteen, at which a man in the audience told Trump that president Obama was a Muslim, and, quote, not even an American. And Trump, instead of correcting the man, played along. And Graham instead of ignoring the incident, went after Trump for failing to rebuke the guy who made that statement.
  • Speaker 3
    0:12:17
    We’re looking for a leader who will push back against this kind of hateful stuff. On both sides of the eye. You know, I used to be really afraid of confronting people like this because Oh my goodness. The loudest person in the room. You you know, you you don’t know what to do.
  • Speaker 3
    0:12:33
    Just let it go. Don’t be afraid of losing a boat.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:39
    There’s one interview from that campaign that haunts me in particular. It was March seventh, twenty sixteen. By this point, the primaries had pretty much winnowed the Republican race to Trump and cruise. Gram was on CNN, imploring Republicans to unite against Trump. He ran through the whole litany of Trump’s awfulness.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:01
    The race baiting, the religious bigotry, the demands to commit work crimes. And then he said something else. He talked about cowardice, and silence and regret.
  • Speaker 3
    0:13:13
    When he said most illegal immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, they’re not sending our best. He took our problems in twenty twelve with hispanics and made him far worse by espousing forced deportation. Looking back, we should have basically kicked him out of party. And those who calculated leave him alone don’t bother him. Well, anytime you leave a bad idea or a dangerous idea alone, Anytime you ignore what could be an evil force, you wind up regretting it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:42
    That interview haunts me because Graham thought he was talking about the past. He thought he was talking about the evil that Republicans had already ignored. But that was just the beginning. There was so much more evil to come. And despite everything he had just said, about dangerous ideas and indifference and regret, Gram was about to become one of the most culpable stone faced apologists for all the evil that followed.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:28
    How did a senator who so clearly understood every element of the oncoming disaster. Trump, his angry fan base, and the cowardice of the Republican elite. How did that senator nevertheless become part of the ensuing evil? The first piece of the answer is that Graham, like many other Republicans, who initially opposed Trump, had made a political calculation. And that calculation turned out to be wrong.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:59
    There’s a line that Graham loved to say about Trump during the twenty sixteen campaign. He said he would quote, rather lose without Trump than try to win with him. That sounded brave. But Graham didn’t really believe Trump could win. He didn’t think he might need to suck up to Trump because Graham figured that Trump was so toxic In particular, so abrasive to women and to Hispanic voters, that even if Trump managed to win the nomination, He would get creamed in the general election.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:31
    So through most of the campaign, Graham found that it was relatively easy to speak out against Trump. Gram didn’t think he had much to lose by alienating a loser. In May twenty sixteen, that began to change.
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  • Speaker 2
    0:18:27
    On May third, Trump went on Fox News and suggested that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Trump’s allegation was totally bonkers. Graham said it showed that Trump was, quote, completely unhinged. But that day, Trump beat cruise in the Indiana primary and cruise dropped out of the race. That left Trump, the unhinged guy, as the presumptive Republican nominee.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:58
    This was a big turning point. Trump’s name was going to be on the fall ballot in every state at the top of the republican ticket. So the republican party hopes of keeping the House and the Senate now depended on how well Trump could do against the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Up to this point, Graham and other Republicans who recognized Trump as a menace had described Trump slurs, his outbursts, and his despotic ideas as evidence that he was unfit for office. But now, they had an incense to reformulate their criticism as advice.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:39
    Instead of rejecting Trump as an unacceptable leader, they could just ask him to stop saying, unacceptable things. For a few days, Graham resisted this temptation. He said that he couldn’t in good conscience support Trump for it. But Graham’s refusal came with a caveat. If Trump were to beat Clinton, if he were to become president, Gram would set aside his misgivings.
  • Speaker 3
    0:20:06
    I just believe his temperament and judgment is not sufficient to be commander in chief of the finest fighting force in the world. I think he has any of those issues. Wrong? Yeah. He can win.
  • Speaker 3
    0:20:17
    Maybe he wins. And I promise you this if he becomes president of the United States, I will do everything I can to help president Trump or president Clinton.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:26
    On May eleventh, five days after that CNN interview, Trump phoned Graham. He chatted him up, and he asked for Graham’s advice on national security. Graham loved it. This was what Graham had hoped for. If he couldn’t be president himself, he wanted to shape the foreign policy of the person who did become president.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:50
    Graham began to change the way he talked about Trump. He said Trump had asked good questions, he called him wise. He said Trump had a great sense of humor. When Grant went back to CNN a few days later, He thanked Trump for the phone call, and he began to do something that Graham and other Republican politicians would soon be doing routinely. He gave Trump advice through the TV.
  • Speaker 2
    0:21:17
    Everybody knew Trump watched cable news, so Graham spoke to him directly Here’s what I would tell mister Trump about Sirius at Graham. Here’s what I would tell him about North Korea. Here’s what I’d tell him about Iraq. In the interview, you can hear Graham beginning to come to terms with the idea of a Trump presidency.
  • Speaker 7
    0:21:38
    Are you warming to Donald Trump?
  • Speaker 3
    0:21:40
    Well, I’ll talk to him. I mean, you know, we have major differences when it comes to immigration. Yeah. I think taking the party down a road that I choose not to go. But, you know, he’s got a fifty fifty chance to be the president of the United States.
  • Speaker 2
    0:21:59
    Gram was starting to let go of his resistance to Trump. It wasn’t just because of Trump’s flattery. Graham had some very practical reasons. He wanted Republicans to keep control of Congress. And he hoped that if Trump won, Graham could build a relationship with him, it may be influences foreign policy.
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:19
    But Graham didn’t want to think of himself as a sellout. He didn’t want to think that he was abandoning the principles he had articulated in opposition to Trump. He wanted to believe that for some good reason, those principles somehow no longer applied. And that’s why, in the days after his phone call with Trump, Graham began to formulate a rationale for accepting the authoritarian candidate. The rationale was democracy.
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:54
    When people ask how an authoritarian candidate gained power in the United States, they often assume that our democratic system or our democratic culture should have thwarted that candidate. But just the opposite happened. America’s self image as a strong rational democracy actually helped Trump. Within the Republican Party, Trump’s success in polls and in primaries earned him respect as the people’s candidate. And that gave politicians like Graham, an excuse to bend the knee.
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    0:23:29
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  • Speaker 2
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    In the first weeks of Trump’s campaign, Graham predicted that Trump would lose because Americans and Republicans in particular. Were too good to elect such a scoundrel.
  • Speaker 3
    0:24:41
    I believe in democracy, don’t you? Let me tell you how this works, Frank. The good people of Iowa, the good people of New Hampshire, and the good people of South Carolina are going to figure this out. And here’s what I think they’re gonna say. Donald Trump, you’re fired.
  • Speaker 3
    0:25:07
    There have been people in the past who have been dimcomps that prey on the the weak, the different. That appeal to our prejudices, not our best hopes. And there’s nothing new here. And let me tell you how it always ends. The demagogue loses because this is America.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:26
    But Graham was wrong. Trump didn’t fade. Even the, quote, good people of South Carolina voted for Trump in the Republican primary. Clearly, Graham had miscalculated. Maybe the voters were wrong.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:42
    Maybe America wasn’t always a good place. Maybe sometimes, the demagogue won. But to face that possibility, Graham would have to rethink everything. He would have to oppose the Republican ticket. He would have to reconsider his role in the party.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:00
    He would have to defy the voters of his own state. So instead, Graham turned the other way. He told himself that democracy had worked. The good Republicans of South Carolina and other states had chosen Trump, not Graham. Maybe they knew better than Graham did.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:20
    And if the good people of America went on to elect Trump, then Graham would accept their judgment. He wouldn’t just tolerate their decision, He would embrace it. He would bow to the people’s verdict. He would withdraw his criticisms of Trump. Did Graham really believe this?
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:40
    Did he honestly think that the voters knew best and that their ballots somehow cleansed Trump? Probably not. But that was the rationale Graham began to articulate in public. And over time, Graham increasingly behaved as though he did believe it. That’s how rationales often work.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:59
    You espouse them at first, uncertainly or insincerely, but later with conviction, because you need them to justify what you’ve done or what you want to do. That’s what Graham did as he turned toward Trump. He told CNN that Trump had done an amazing thing by winning the Republican nomination. He said Trump’s fitness to be president was up to the American people. And in the name of respecting the people’s will, Graham announced his right to judge Trump.
  • Speaker 7
    0:27:32
    Right now, do you think Donald Trump is more qualified on to be commander in chief than Hillary Clinton?
  • Speaker 3
    0:27:37
    Well, at the end of the day, that’s up to the American people. What I see is a field strategy under president Obama that’s pretty much been adopted by Hillary.
  • Speaker 7
    0:27:44
    Sir, you are not a man to men’s words. Why is it uncomfortable when I ask you, Josh?
  • Speaker 3
    0:27:48
    It is uncomfortable to to to say that somebody’s not qualified to beat you.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:01
    All through that summer in fall, Trump continued to lash out against minorities the democratic process, and the rule of law. In June, he claimed that Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge who had been born in the United States, should be barred from presiding over a Trump related lawsuit because Curial’s quote heritage presented in Trump’s words an inherent conflict of interest.
  • Speaker 12
    0:28:27
    I think I’m gonna do very well with his FedEx, but we’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:34
    Trump also said a Muslim judge might be ineligible to preside over the case. Trump denounced immigration from, quote, Muslim countries. He told his followers that American democracy was a sham. He claimed that the election was rigged and that illegal immigrants were being brought into the United States to vote for the Democrats. He said that if he were to lose that would mean that the Democrats had cheated and that the outcome was illegitimate.
  • Speaker 4
    0:29:04
    And I’m telling you November eighth, we better be careful because that election’s gonna be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s gonna be taken away from us.
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:12
    When reporters asked Graham about Trump’s dangerous and bigoted statements, Gram did criticize those statements. But he no longer described them as evidence that Trump was unfit to be president. Instead, Graham said these statements were politically unhelpful. Graham was no longer trying to protect America from Trump. Now he was just trying to protect the Republican Party by keeping Trump on message in the hope that Trump would do well enough in the election.
  • Speaker 6
    0:29:43
    So, Donald, take it to her. This model they’ve got about trying to criminalize the war as dangers. This idea that when a narrative fight rather than a real fight, it’s dangerous. Take it to them.
  • Speaker 11
    0:29:55
    Center take If
  • Speaker 6
    0:29:55
    you win, Donald, I Will Saletan you where I can. All I know to play.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:01
    On November eighth twenty sixteen, Graham watched in amazement as Trump won the election. Better yet, Republicans kept the House and the Senate. All that work to prop up Trump had paid off. He was going to be president, And Lindsey Graham was going to become his best friend in Congress. It was time to get to work.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:27
    Coming up next time on the corruption of Lindsey Graham, the senator lays the groundwork for his sellout to Trump.
  • Speaker 3
    0:30:34
    Yeah. I said everything I said was a xenophobic, race baiting, religious bigot. I ran out of adjectives. Well, the American people spoke they rejected my analysis and he is now my president.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:47
    The corruption of Lindsey Graham was reported and written by me, Will Salatin. Katie Cooper is the producer with audio engineering, editing, and sound design by Jason Brown. Thank you to my editors, Jonathan Last Last and Adam Kiper, and to Charlie Sykes.
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    0:31:13
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  • Speaker 2
    0:31:21
    Sean Webb.
  • Speaker 14
    0:31:21
    Everyone Webb. Everyone can be influenced and a computer system in artificial intelligence is on the figuring out how to do that. You’re talking about the ability of being able to simulate the third human being and sign you up for a special task force. And all of a sudden, you’re looking for an artificial intelligence arming you, equipping you, and it has a human army to defend its artificial intelligence goals. That’s where we’re at.
  • Speaker 13
    0:31:39
    The Sean Ryan Show, on YouTube or wherever you listen.
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