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- Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and President Donald Trump appear to be great friends now.
- They did not used to be.
- The two have been golfing more often, and Graham has recently taken to defending or sticking up for the president when previously, he was much more antagonistic.
Perhaps nothing helped better illustrate the about-face Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has taken in his relationship with President Donald Trump than a comment he made about the media’s portrayal of the president in a recent interview with CNN.
“What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy as some kind of kook not fit to be president,” he said.
The comment went viral almost instantly. Why? Because Graham was at one time among those who labeled Trump a “kook” not fit for office.
“I think he’s a kook,” Graham said in February 2016. “I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.”
Certainly much has changed since last February, a time when multiple Republicans were still challenging Trump for the party’s presidential nomination. But one doesn’t need to look that far back to find Graham speaking critically of the president.
One of Trump’s fiercest critics
Graham could routinely be found on TV or in print and online media, both in the months prior to the election and – more importantly – in the months that followed it, blasting the president for some of his more bombastic tweets, policies he disagreed with, and Trump’s suggestion that Attorney General Jeff Sessions investigate 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Graham would cast his presidential vote in 2016 for independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin, telling Business Insider that he “couldn’t go where Trump was taking the party.”
For his part, Trump routinely took aim at Graham. Most notably early in the 2016 campaign cycle when he gave out Graham’s cell phone number at a rally, later mocking the senator for getting “ZERO” support and dropping out of the race.
And as recently as August, Graham and Trump found themselves in a public feud.
After Graham criticized Trump’s response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump called the senator “publicity seeking” and added that he “falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists” and those protesting against them.
“Such a disgusting lie,” Trump said. “He just can’t forget his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!”
Graham fired back, saying Trump’s rhetoric was “dividing Americans, not healing them.”
In the administration’s early days, even Democrats were praising Graham for being “politically brave,” as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told Business Insider in February.
“A lot of people, as Trump moved forward to becoming the nominee and the president-elect and the president, pulled pretty fast 180s in currying favor and trying to get back into Trump’s favor,” he said. “And I think Lindsey is a very principled person, and he’s made his decision about this man. And he will accord him what respect is necessary, but he certainly is not going to go sniffling back begging for forgiveness and favor.”
But this fall, things started to change.
The two become golfing buddies
It was then that Graham and Trump became more regular golfing buddies, with Graham boasting to Golf.com of Trump’s skills on the greens.
“He hit the ball on the screws,” Graham said, suggesting that the president had shot an incredible 73 on an 18-hole course, roughly par for 18 holes.
Gone were the days of Graham routinely taking shots at Trump in the media. Now, Graham began tweeting that the Senate Judiciary Committee should support a special counsel “to investigate ALL THINGS 2016 — not just Trump and Russia,” and that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence “were focused like a laser on success in the Senate.”
As Josh Marshall of the liberal blog Talking Points Memo wrote after Graham’s December tweets about a special counsel to focus on “not just Trump and Russia,” Graham’s pro-Trump swing “is, frankly, not clear.”
“There’s some story here,” he added. “I don’t know what it is. We don’t know that it’s nefarious. But this is something that would be very helpful to have explained.”
During another golf outing last week, Graham tweeted about how “Trump International Golf Club is a spectacular golf course.”
“Great day of fun playing with @POTUS @realDonaldTrump,” he wrote.
And after Democrat Doug Jones defeated embattled Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s special Senate election, Graham tweeted that Trump – who provided Moore with full-throated support in the race’s final days – had the right instincts in first supporting incumbent Sen. Luther Strange.
Graham was a vocal critic of Moore, who he said would be “the gift that keeps on giving for the Democrats.”
‘The people you never thought’ Trump would be close with ‘are the people he’s close with’
In an October interview with Politico, Graham insisted that Trump was “growing into the job” and was far different from the person he routinely railed against over the past two years.
A White House official told the publication that Graham “is one of the best” alliances “we have on the Hill,” with Politico writing that Graham was “transforming himself from one of Trump’s fiercest critics to his chief congressional translator, talking to the president sometimes multiple times in a day.”
“Part of it’s just getting to know each other better,” Graham said, adding, “I do better in South Carolina when I’m seen as helping him, ’cause he’s popular. When I’m helping him, he’s seen as being able to reach out to an old critic. One thing he likes, I think, about me, is I don’t quit.”
Graham, who was at the forefront of a last-ditch effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act in September, said his effort “created sort of a bond” between him and the president.
“He saw in me a guy that had an idea that made sense and was willing to fight,” he said.
As sources close to Graham and the White House acknowledged to Business Insider that the change in the relationship did come as a surprise to some.
“The people you never thought” Trump would “be close with are the people he’s close with,” a former White House official said.
Golf played a major role in the improved relationship. A source close to Graham told Business Insider that the two simply have a good time playing with each other. And having to be one-on-one for a full three-to-four-hour round, a lot is discussed.
“Most people that get to know Lindsey think he’s a pretty witty guy,” the source said. “So he’s a fun guy to be around.”
That source added that the senator still speaks out against the administration on issues he disagrees with them on, such as Russia, and that Graham is “not a fan of some of the tweets coming out of there.”
But when there is agreement, such as on Obamacare or Syria, Graham has no problem supporting the president.
“I wouldn’t say it’s transactional, but it’s an issue by issue thing,” they said.
Trump allies noted that among the president’s “best buddies” in the Senate were Graham and Sen. Ron Paul, two senators who are ideologically opposed to each other and often have policy conflicts with what the president is pushing for.
As one source characterized it, the relationship with Graham is not so much about policy as it is that the president simply “likes” the senator.
For Graham, the source said the relationship was fostered as a result of Graham having “smartly adapted” to the realities of Trump sitting in the White House.
“At the end of the day, Lindsey Graham is a wily politician,” they said. “And you can’t underestimate that.”