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Lindsey Graham Knows How to Stand Up to Strongmen. Unless They’re Republicans.

February 14, 2022
Lindsey Graham Knows How to Stand Up to Strongmen. Unless They’re Republicans.
(Photos: GettyImages)

Most Republicans in Congress have a clear understanding of Vladimir Putin: He’s a predator, and the only way to stop him is to stand up to him. They understand other tyrants the same way: China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ali Khamenei, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. But when the predator is in their own country—when he’s the leader of their own party—their philosophy of deterrence melts into appeasement. The hawks become doves.

On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the GOP’s leading voice on foreign policy, appeared on ABC’s This Week. Graham called for stiff sanctions against Russia to deter an invasion of Ukraine. He complained that the Biden administration wasn’t “telling Putin with clarity what happens if you invade,” and he argued that the Kremlin “should be punished now” through a preemptive sanctions package—temporarily waived, pending Putin’s decision—“so Putin could see it in writing. That might help him decide not to invade.”

Graham reminded viewers what Putin had done to earn fear and distrust. “What I can’t get over is that the world is allowing him to do all this without consequence,” the senator fumed. “The guy took the Crimea in 2014. He’s got 100,000 troops amassed on the Ukrainian border, and he’s paying no price at all. So I’d like to hit him now for the provocation and have sanctions spelled out very clearly: what happens to the ruble and his oil-and-gas economy.”

George Stephanopoulos then turned the conversation to the man who recently tried, in his own words, to “overturn” a presidential election in the United States: former President Donald Trump.

Trump doesn’t have Putin’s record of jailing political opponents, eliminating dissidents and journalists, or invading countries. But he has often emulated foreign autocrats—for example, by calling for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton, denouncing the press as “the enemy of the people,” and entertaining the use of martial law to re-run the 2020 election. In a failed attempt to prevent his elected successor from taking office, Trump incited an attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The day after that attack—January 7, 2021—Graham acknowledged that what Trump had asked Vice President Mike Pence to do on January 6—to single-handedly “disenfranchise 155 million people”—was “illegal.” Graham also conceded that regardless of the evidence, “nobody’s ever going to convince” Trump that he hadn’t been cheated in the election. A reporter asked the senator, “Do you trust the president not to incite the kind of violence that he promoted yesterday in the next two weeks?” The best answer Graham could offer was: “I’m hoping he won’t. I’m hoping that he will allow [White House Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows to continue the transition.”

In short, Graham understood that Trump thought like an autocrat, had just attempted to seize and hold power like an autocrat, and could never be talked out of his autocratic mindset.

But instead of confronting the tyrant, Graham excused him. In fact, Graham tried to protect Trump’s path back to power. Trump was just “frustrated” and ill-served by advisers who thought he could overturn the election, the senator argued: “He had people who said that he could do it. The fault lies, I think, with some of the legal advice around him.”

Graham then launched a successful campaign to quash Trump’s second impeachment, which the senator condemned as a scheme “to disqualify President Trump from ever holding office again.”

Today, Graham proudly advocates Trump’s reelection. When Stephanopoulos asked about Trump running in 2024, Graham replied: “It’s his nomination for the taking in 2024, if he wants. . . . He has a great chance of being president again.”

That phrase—his “for the taking”—was a blunt invitation to conquest.

Perhaps Republican senators think Trump is less dangerous than foreign despots because his authoritarian instincts can be managed. But in the interview, Stephanopoulos pointed out that despite Graham’s frequent appeals to the former president, Trump “doesn’t really show any signs of changing. He continues to lie about the 2020 election. A couple weeks ago, he talked about pardoning the January 6th rioters.”

None of this evidence dissuaded Graham from his sycophantic posture. “He’s the most dominant figure in the Republican Party,” Graham said of Trump, admiringly. “He has a chance to come back.”

In fact, Graham used the interview to threaten Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has refused to bend the knee to Trump’s lies about the election and January 6. “Any Republican leader in the House or the Senate has to have a working relationship with President Trump,” said Graham. “Mitch McConnell, if he runs, or anyone else, I think, would have to show a working relationship with the president.”

Essentially, that policy grants Trump absolute power over the GOP.

Yet when the conversation shifted back to foreign affairs, Graham became a hawk again. “The world needs to tell Iran, before it’s too late, what are the red lines regarding their nuclear program,” he told Stephanopoulos. “If we don’t give the Iranians red lines, we could have a war on our hands pretty quickly between Israel and Iran.”

In fairness to Graham and his Republican colleagues, there are obvious differences between a Russian invasion of Ukraine, an Iran-Israel war, and a second Trump presidency. It’s easy to think that because Trump is American, and because his reelection would in theory be nonviolent, the principle of deterrence doesn’t apply.

But it does apply. If you don’t draw a line and defend it, the aggressor won’t stop. And it doesn’t matter what language he speaks.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.