Four years ago, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham called then-candidate Donald Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.”
In 2017, the South Carolina Republican was almost in tears as he urged compassion for young undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation by the Trump administration.
Yet this past week, after visiting the southern border with Trump’s vice president, he declared that federal law enforcement agents were the true victims of the migrant border crisis — not the thousands of detained children who have been separated from their parents or adult caretakers.
Over the last several days, these flash points in Graham’s evolution from Trump critic to Trump ally have been on stark display, renewing a popular parlor game among Democrats and “never-Trump” Republicans that starts with the question: “What happened to Lindsey Graham?”
“Whatever is happening to Lindsey, this is not the person I used to know,” Meghan McCain, the daughter of the late-U.S. Sen. John McCain who has said she considers Graham a surrogate “uncle,” lamented on Tuesday.
“Lindsey Graham — once a moderate, bridge-building bipartisan — is now a race-baiting, sexist, Trump-enabling sycophant,” said former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Graham’s longtime colleague, in a party fundraising email Thursday.
Publicly, Graham is talking a tough game, threatening to move forward with his bill to change the nation’s asylum laws with or without Democratic support and blaming much of the border crisis on Democrats’ hatred of Trump.
Yet privately, this whole time, Graham also has been working behind the scenes with congressional Democrats to strike a compromise on his asylum bill, which would allow both parties to claim a win in the latest immigration battle.
He has spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, another California Democrat who chairs a congressional immigration subcommittee and also has legislation to address the border crisis, volunteered that she, too, has met with Graham.
His closest Democratic ally on immigration issues, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said he had not spoken to Graham since the Republican’s return from the southern border. Asked whether he thought his colleague had changed positions on the issue, he chuckled and replied, “not since the last time I talked to him.”
If Graham has changed since linking himself to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and polarizing political brand, there’s one area at least where he’s very much the same: he desperately wants to make a deal.
‘I don’t know’
Chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham is famous for his overtures across the aisle to build legislative consensus. He is currently looking for ways to advance his bill to stop the flood of migrants at the southern border by forcing migrants to make asylum claims in their home countries rather than in the United States.
His bill would increase the number of days a migrant family can be held in detention while their asylum request is being processed, from the current 20-day limit to up to 100 days.
Earlier in the week, Graham told Fox News he was happy to keep detained immigrants “in those cells for 400 days, if it’s up to me,” a hardline position that raised eyebrows with liberals.
But in conversations with Democrats, Graham has indicated a willingness to back off his initial 100-day recommendation.
In exchange for ending the practice of making asylum claims in the United States, Graham has pitched Democratic lawmakers on increasing the number of refugees the country accepts from Central America.
The biggest incentive for Democrats to come along, Graham believes, is an agreement to restore some humanitarian aid to the Central American countries from which migrants are fleeing — aid that Trump is withholding to punish foreign leaders for not helping stop the surge of migrants.
“Democrats are right, we should be investing in Central America,” Graham told The State. “But there isn’t enough money you can spend to stop the flow if you don’t change our laws.”
Lofgren said she believed Graham was “serious” about wanting to address the problem, but confirmed what Graham, too, has acknowledged: Republicans’ insistence on changing where migrants can make asylum claims is “the real sticking point” in bipartisan negotiations.
She added that the Trump administration’s foreign policy directives and handling of the border crisis complicate consensus-building efforts.
If Graham can’t bring Democrats on board, he said he would force the Senate Judiciary Committee to take up his asylum bill as is. It’s unlikely it would be considered by the full Senate and would never be taken up by the Democrat-controlled House.
For someone who has risked his political career in conservative South Carolina by working with Democrats on immigration legislation, moving ahead on a strictly partisan immigration measure would be a stunning transformation for Graham.
Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware said he didn’t think Graham would make that decision lightly.
“I think he would do so only out of great frustration and having concluded that there was no bipartisan compromise possible,” said Coons. “I have been in the room in previous years and heard him make enormous efforts to compromise and to reach the middle on immigration issues.”
However, Coons conceded, “I don’t know where he is today.”
Then and now
Over the past week, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has publicly said everything to indicate he’s leaning heavily into his new reputation as a conservative hardliner and unapologetic ally of the Trump administration.
He said he had no problems with the overcrowded conditions he observed at the federal immigration detention centers, repeating the party line that his only concerns were lack of bed space and the burden on border patrol agents.
“The kids were being well treated,” he told The State. “I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve seen a lot of bad jails. This is just overcrowded. Nobody‘s being beaten. Nobody’s being tortured. They have showers.”
After Trump tweeted that four Democratic congresswomen of color — three of whom who were born in the United States — should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Graham’s initial response to Fox News was simply that Trump ought to “knock it down a notch.” Graham then called the congresswomen “Communists” who “hate America.”
Not all of Graham’s Democratic colleagues are giving Graham the benefit of the doubt.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, a member of the Judiciary Committee who has been particularly antagonistic of Graham in recent months, said that “hope springs eternal” the chairman would make bipartisan overtures on his asylum bill.
But, she added, Graham has changed: “It follows his relationship with the president.”
The State asked Graham whether he thought any of his comments on the border crisis, and about the congresswomen at the center of Trump’s recent ire, would interfere with his ability to work with Democrats — or if Graham would ever get to a point where he would stop trying to work with Democrats altogether.
Graham said, flatly, “no.”
“Whatever fights I get in, whether it’s (Brett) Kavanaugh or anything else, that’s no excuse for any of us to not try to fix the problems for our country,” he said, alluding to the now-Supreme Court justice’s confirmation battle that alienated Graham from Democrats. “There’s no excuse to stop trying to find solutions. Most people are that way.”
Emily Cadei of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.