Sen. Lindsey Graham for months touted his close relationship with the president, a bond that promised success in crafting deals on the day’s toughest issues — such as immigration.
Now the bond appears to be eroding, with Graham’s status as the “Trump whisperer” in some question.
Graham, Donald Trump’s usual go-to congressional confidante for shop talk and golfing, wasn’t invited over the weekend to dine at Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s guest was the amiable House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, instead.
As of Wednesday afternoon, in fact, the South Carolina Republican had not spoken to the president since Saturday, even as a Friday deadline to avert a government shutdown could depend on whether Graham can help broker even a small-bore immigration compromise to garner necessary Democratic votes.
The sudden chill is likely the fallout of last week’s Oval Office meeting where Graham challenged Trump for allegedly disparaging immigrants from “shithole countries” and Trump rejected Graham’s delicately-negotiated immigration proposal.
No longer the administration’s go-to GOP negotiator for legislation to protect nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, Graham has decided to go rogue.
He is still touting his immigration proposal — a plan embraced by Democrats — that many Republicans have panned and Trump has declared dead on arrival.
“I got a proposal,” Graham told McClatchy Wednesday. “If you don’t like it, come up with one of your own.”
Graham is still talking to immigration hardliners, but he’s also convinced his own framework, brokered with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is currently the only one that can pass.
He is also making some trouble for Trump and GOP leaders by rejecting the party’s narrative that Democrats should take the blame if the government shut downs on Friday night.
Instead, he’s telling Republicans they need to work with Democrats to avoid a lapse in federal funding. That means coming up with a deal to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era executive action granting stays of deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents as young children.
Trump has said he’ll end the program on March 5 unless Congress can come up with a fix. Graham said Republicans are “naïve” to think they can ultimately get Democrats to go along with any GOP plan to fund the military for a year while delaying action on DACA.
“(This) approach makes no sense,” said Graham, who added he would not vote for a short-term spending deal that doesn’t include long-term military funding. If Senate Democrats stick together in opposition to such a plan, Republican leaders can only afford to lose two votes to pass major legislation.
Neither Graham nor Trump is deploying a “scorched earth” approach to one another — at least not yet, and at least not publicly. The two famously sparred during the 2016 campaign, and then again in August after Trump suggested neo-Nazis and counter-protesters were both to blame for the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
In this episode so far, Trump has been quiet about Graham going off script. Graham, in turn, is refusing to denounce Trump as a racist or a bad-faith negotiator. Instead, the senator is framing Trump’s change of heart about the immigration deal he brokered with Durbin as a result of “really bad advice” from White House senior staff, who reportedly convinced the president the bipartisan agreement would alienate the party base.
The two men could eventually get their rapport back on track, as they did after Charlottesville. However, the aftermath of the recent meeting has left Graham somewhat of an island in a political environment growing more complicated and polarized by the day. He might also be turning into a pariah.
On the one hand, he’s become Democrats’ favorite Republican for committing to working with members on the other side of the aisle on immigration and for standing up to Trump.
“I am really grateful that he was not a bystander when he heard an injustice,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. “He challenged the president of the United States, in the Oval Office, on his bigoted, vile statements ... He showed a level of honor that is urgently needed right now.”
But that doesn’t help Graham’s credibility with members on his party’s right flank, who still view the veteran lawmaker skeptically because of his efforts to pass a “mass amnesty” immigration bill in 2013.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and who has worked closely with Graham on immigration legislation for years, said his South Carolina colleague was crucial to getting a DACA deal.
But Diaz-Balart cautioned any immigration deal also couldn’t be done without the president, meaning Trump and Graham might have to get back on the same page quickly.
“(Trump’s) gotta sign the bill,” he said. “We clearly need the White House’s leadership.”