The willingness of Democrats to keep reaching out to Graham – who as one of Trump’s most vocal supporters is cheering the president’s border wall and Mexico tariffs – reflects the unique role the South Carolina Republican has carved out for himself. He’s one of the only people who regularly talks to the president and has a long history of working with Democrats.
Graham’s position as a power broker in Trump’s Washington makes him a central player and could protect him from a primary challenge when he runs for re-election in 2020. But it also comes with risk – both to his reputation as a principled statesman and in a general election if anti-Trump fervor spreads even in solidly Republican South Carolina.
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Obviously to the extent that he can get the president’s ear and try to affect his thinking on something that I would agree with him on, it’s a good thing. To the extent that he feels that he is limited from constructively challenging or critiquing the president, it’s a negative.”
Graham has a clear strategy to be the senator who can get Trump on the phone and — sometimes — change his mind.
Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said there are a lot of issues “where the relationship that he’s forged could prove helpful.”
Graham’s transformation from Trump critic to vocal defender has been head-spinning. Three years ago he called Trump a “kook’’ and a bigot. Now he’s praising his intelligence and golf game.
Most recently Graham was one of the only Senate Republicans to endorse Trump’s threat to use tariffs change Mexico’s immigration policy. Two years ago, he said tariffs on Mexico are “a big-time bad idea.’’
Graham early on decided it’s better to be in Trump’s inner circle where he gets a chance to make his case, rather than carping from the sidelines the way former GOP senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker did before they retired.
“The key to most people, particularly this president, if he thinks you want him to be successful, he’ll take criticism,” Graham said in one of several recent interviews. “If he thinks you’re out to get him, he locks down and that’s it, and he lashes out.”
There’s a political reality to that calculation as well. Flake and Corker saw their poll ratings crater among GOP voters after scrapes with Trump. Meanwhile, Graham’s ratings among South Carolina Republicans soared from 49% two years ago to 74% earlier this year in a Winthrop poll.
Although Republican voters welcome his embrace of Trump, Graham’s sudden reversal featured prominently in the opening bid of the Democrat hoping to deny him re-election. Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee, kicked off his South Carolina senate campaign last week, telling voters that “character counts.’’
“Here’s a guy who will say anything to stay in office,’’ Harrison said in his launch video. “Lindsey Graham can’t lead us in any direction because he traded his moral compass for petty political gain.’’
Mark Salter, a former aide to one of Graham’s closest friends, the late Senator John McCain, also has been critical of Graham’s deference to Trump, while recognizing his political strategy.
“Lindsey if nothing else is an adroit politician,” Salter said.
Graham has glossed over disagreements with Trump on style and substance to maintain his status as the president’s golfing buddy and phone pal. It has been particularly jarring for some colleagues to see Graham set aside Trump’s repeated slagging of McCain, who was Graham’s mentor and a fierce critic of Trump.
“I don’t like what he says about John McCain,” Graham said. “But when we play golf, it’s fun. And I think he’s seen my ability to help him, that I can actually help put deals together.”
To that end, Graham has deployed his Judiciary Committee gavel on two tracks. A partisan, Trump-friendly track includes confirming the administration’s judicial picks and opening an investigation of the Justice Department’s handling of investigations of Russian election interference and Hillary Clinton’s email use in 2016. But Graham has also nurtured a bipartisan legislative agenda on immigration, gun control and election security, among other measures that will ultimately need Democratic votes and a Trump signature.
There have been fleeting moments when Graham appeared to have a deal-making ally in the White House, such as an Oval Office meeting on a Tuesday afternoon in January 2018, when Trump agreed to an immigration compromise Democrats could support. Trump reversed course by the end of that week and used profanity to insult countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
Graham still openly pines for “Tuesday Trump” — a president who would be willing to compromise with Democrats in order to overhaul asylum laws and dissuade thousands of Central Americans from coming to the southern border.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to take another chance to get a mini-deal,” Graham said. “I don’t expect a Democrat to vote for that unless they get something. So I told the president that if the Democrats are willing to work with you, you need to work with them.”
‘Cooling off period’
So far it’s not going as Graham hoped.
The senator was openly dismayed last month when Trump walked out of a meeting with Democratic leaders on infrastructure and declared he wouldn’t work with them until they stop investigating him. Back at the Capitol, Graham warned Trump against tying the business of governing to congressional probes.
“The party that’s seen that they don’t want to govern at all is going to be in real trouble,” he said, hoping Trump reconsiders after “a cooling-off period.”
Even though Graham played a prominent role as a manager of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate, he has defended Trump against allegations that he has obstructed justice since his inauguration.
This loyalty – which Trump has also prioritized in other associates – has earned Graham goodwill in the White House that allows him to advocate for issues that are important to him, particularly on national security.
“When I push back on foreign policy, he knows my view has been long held, long before he got to be president,’’ Graham said. “When I weigh in it’s to make sure we get good policy but also to make sure that it’s helpful to him.”
Last year, Trump surprised even his closest allies when he tweeted his decision to pull American troops out of Syria. Graham quickly called Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton. He told reporters Trump was courting disaster and began rallying leaders in Europe and colleagues in both parties to push back. Eventually his efforts bore fruit, and Trump agreed to keep at least a few hundred troops in Syria.
Graham also pushed back forcefully against firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which brought him praise from Democrats. Graham eventually told reporters it would be okay for Trump to replace Sessions after the midterm elections – which is what Trump did.
Graham later said he all but begged William Barr to take the job of attorney general and urged Trump to pick him – which he did.
Maine Senator Susan Collins, who is usually among the first Republicans to differ with Trump, recognized the power Graham has as a confidant of the president.
“He has the ability to ring up the president at any time, night or day, he really does,’’ Collins said. “The president seems to enjoy his company and listens to his advice — at times.”
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