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McCain told Graham to avoid Trump drama. Instead, the GOP senator is a major player

After having lunch with President Donald Trump at the White House, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks to journalists on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST

By PAUL KANE | The Washington Post | Published: October 26, 2019

WASHINGTON — In one of their last conversations, John McCain told Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that he should continue trying to help President Donald Trump, up to a certain point.

"Help him where you can," the late Republican senator from Arizona told his longtime friend. "Just don't get sucked into all this bull----."

"Right," Graham responded.

Fourteen months later, Graham is the president's highest-profile defender in the Senate on everything from his demands for border wall funds to his opposition to the House impeachment inquiry.

Graham introduced a nonbinding resolution Thursday that would put senators on record about whether they support the process House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has launched for the impeachment inquiry. Despite his public clash with Trump over the withdrawal of troops from Syria, Graham led a group of about 10 Senate Republicans Thursday to a two-hour huddle with the president at the White House.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham plans to hold hearings when the Justice Department's inspector general finishes an investigation into surveillance warrants that were used in the inquiry into Russian interference to benefit Trump's 2016 election.

That's just one of several probes the president's allies have been pushing Graham to launch. They have urged him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Some have even pushed for Graham to try to force Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the leader of the impeachment probe, to testify before his panel.

He has come a long way from August 2018 when he reflected, three days after McCain died, on his final conversations with the 2008 GOP presidential nominee and the bitter fights McCain had with Trump.

Graham had told reporters he would take that advice in dealing with Trump. "So I'm going to help him where I can, and not get sucked into all the other drama," Graham said that day.

By that point, Graham had already begun his journey into Trump's inner circle after initially serving as his highest-profile critic during the 2016 campaign (at a time when McCain said he would support Trump).

About two years ago, Graham started talking to some of Trump's national security team, and the initial phase of becoming a presidential ally seemed to focus on trying to steer Trump's isolationist instincts closer to the traditionally hawkish Republican positions favored by McCain.

Graham still introduced legislation designed to shield Robert Mueller, the former special counsel who spent two years investigating the president, from getting fired.

Graham's rip-roaring defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation last year made him a conservative hero, a status he last held 20 years ago when he served as a House impeachment manager in the Senate trial of President Clinton. Once he arrived in the Senate in 2003, he drifted into McCain's orbit and became a target for a conservative primary challenge every six years.

By Thursday, however, Graham was fully in the Trump corner. And the reward for that loyalty is almost unlimited access to power.

In just about six hours of whirlwind action, Graham bounced from the Russell Senate Office Building to the Capitol, met up with a bunch of Republicans, went to the White House, hustled back to make some afternoon votes and then held a 30-minute news conference denouncing Pelosi and Schiff.

In between each task, he held court in at least a half-dozen scrums with the media, all but one of which involved the senator roaming freely in the Capitol without an aide monitoring what he said or guiding him to his next appointment.

In the White House Situation Room, the GOP senators spent a little more than an hour with top military leaders laying out an emerging plan for trying to leave some troops in Syria.

"Great conversation about Syria and the complexities of it," Graham told reporters back in the Capitol. "I learned a lot about the president's thinking I quite frankly didn't know. That's odd, as much as we talk."

Graham uses Trump's infatuation with Syrian oil fields to try to nudge him to leave enough troops to help the United States' Kurdish allies, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, fight Islamic State forces.

"You know, the oil is a key asset," Trump told Graham.

"OK, OK, let's keep talking here," Graham replied, according to his account. "If the money goes to the right people, the SDF, that's a good thing. And it keeps the ISIS fight going. Mr. President, the oil field won't guard itself."

Graham seemed to acknowledge that he is not sure Trump will sign off on the plan. "I see a plan in place that could work. Whether or not it's approved, I don't know," he told reporters after the meeting.

The price Graham, and the other nine senators, had to pay is listening to Trump repeat himself, about the Russia investigation and now the impeachment inquiry about his effort to push Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden's dealings there.

After the Syria briefing, the group grabbed lunch together, with beef as the main entree and a large serving of impeachment grievances.

"The bulk of the lunch - 40, 45 minutes - was the president saying, 'I didn't do anything wrong,' " Graham explained.

All this help still hasn't won total loyalty with Trump and his closest allies. They have been complaining that Graham, who is up for reelection next year, will not open investigations designed to help Trump.

The president lashed out during a news conference two weeks ago. "Lindsey should focus on Judiciary," Trump said, suggesting several investigations that would help him.

Graham told reporters he would not "turn the Senate into a circus." He later said that he also had a quick huddle with acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a friend of Graham's from his days as a South Carolina congressman.

He told Mulvaney to staff up a better messaging operation to defend Trump.

Did Mulvaney ask Graham to do anything more?

"No, I think I'm doing my part," Graham said.

He's no longer worried about getting sucked into the drama.  
 

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