WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham spent the better part of a year ridiculing Donald Trump, never expecting the GOP nominee for president to actually win the race for the White House.
Now, the South Carolina Republican is rumored to be on a literal or figurative "enemies" list circulating among Trump allies — a warning he could be shut out of negotiating rooms by the new administration.
However, if Graham is worried about retribution, he isn't showing it. In a meeting Tuesday with members of the Capitol Hill press corps that he convened, Graham made it clear he is still a senior legislator with plans, connections, clout and a willingness to be helpful.
"Clearly, me and 'the Donald' have issues," Graham said. "And I will do everything I can to help him because he will be commander-in-chief in dangerous times."
Graham said he could be a partner of Trump’s in efforts to pass major infrastructure legislation, citing his many years of work in support of deepening the Port of Charleston, and other ports as well. He said he was gratified by Trump’s stated commitment to boosting defense spending, recalling that his own short-lived bid for president was centered on strengthening the military.
He reminded reporters he sits on the Judiciary Committee, which equates to the proving grounds for debates on the next Supreme Court justice. Graham even reiterated his suggestion that Trump nominate Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, a controversial U.S. senator and 2016 campaign rival, to fill the current vacancy.
“I think he would get a lot of votes,” Graham said with a laugh, the subtext being fellow senators would be more than happy to rid themselves of an unpopular colleague.
In addition to serving on the Armed Services Committee alongside his close friend and chairman Arizona Sen. John McCain, Graham mentioned more than once his powerful role as an appropriator.
“I am the chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee on Appropriations,” Graham said, “which means I’m in charge of foreign aid and all the money of the state department. So no matter who (Trump) picks for (Secretary of State), they’re gonna come see me.”
It simply might not be possible for Trump to avoid Graham, even if he tried.
Graham is one of the most quotable and outspoken members of the Senate, a favorite among reporters looking for a candid and informative soundbite on the news of the day. The senator said one reason he called his briefing on the first day back from the seven-week congressional recess was to avoid being in a situation where journalists “ask me something every five minutes for the next six months.” It didn’t seem he was entirely joking.
But it was clear Graham was using the occasion to set his own narrative ahead of the “lame duck” legislative session that will lead into, for the first time in a decade, that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House.
He said he wouldn’t be afraid to take Trump to task if necessary. Graham promised, for instance, to continue to be a “hard ass” on Russia as Trump seeks to normalize the United States’ relationship with Vladimir Putin. He said he was signing onto Iran sanction legislation sponsored by departing Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and would champion it in the next Congress in the event lawmakers don’t enact sanctions on their own this year. And he would continue to fight for full reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which Trump has said he opposes.
Graham conceded he hasn’t spoken to Trump since he won the election, but he isn’t reading too much into that – or losing any sleep about it.
“I look forward to working with him,” Graham said. “Last time I looked, they gotta come through Congress. My name is in the book. I’m ready to talk. And if I can work with you, I can. I’ll tell you if I can’t. I’m not going to blindside anyone. I’m just gonna be Lindsey Graham.”