Lindsey Graham Trades Principle for Influence

Steve Bannon lost his job in the White House on August 18th, but he lost a lot of his influence long before that. In April, President Trump’s National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster removed Bannon from the National Security Council. At the time, Jim Lobe noted on his blog that this was good news for the neoconservatives.

The apparent and surprisingly abrupt demise in Steve Bannon’s influence offers a major potential opening for neoconservatives, many of whom opposed Trump’s election precisely because of his association with Bannon and the “America Firsters,” to return to power after so many years of being relegated to the sidelines. Bannon’s decline suggests that he no longer wields the kind of veto power that prevented the nomination of Elliott Abrams as deputy secretary of state.

I can only imagine how Bannon feels about seeing neoconservative stalwart Lindsey Graham positioning himself to have the ear of the president:

Three times in a single day last week, Senator Lindsey Graham’s cellphone rang. The first time, President Trump called about the health care fight in Congress. The second time, the president thanked the senator for defending his honor on television. Then Mr. Trump rang seeking more intelligence on health care.

Mr. Graham — Republican of South Carolina and a one-time target of the president’s barbs on Twitter — has transformed himself into the Senate’s Trump whisperer, shrugging off the White House chaos, personal insults and deep ideological differences in exchange for Mr. Trump’s ear.

It’s well known that Sen. Graham’s best friend in the Senate is John McCain, and that they share a fire-breathing militaristic neoconservative view of U.S. foreign policy. They have nothing in common with the Bannonites, and this is one reason among many that McCain has been increasingly critical of Trump. I have no doubt that Bannon would like nothing better than to banish Graham from the Senate and see him replaced with an America Firster.

Graham recently injected himself into the health care debate, which is an area where he has previously shown little interest and less expertise. And it’s true that these recent calls pertained to health care and not foreign policy. But Graham is establishing trust and a working relationship which he will attempt to use in foreign policy going forward.

It’s a sign of how badly things have deteriorated that this might not be such a bad thing. For all the flaws with neoconservatism, its insistence on global engagement puts it above the kind of Know-Nothing paleoconservatism of folks like Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon. For example, the neoconservatives may not see the State Department as a natural ally, but they don’t want to abandon diplomacy or support for international organizations and alliances. I imagine that Graham will give some very bad and dangerous foreign policy advice to President Trump, but he also might talk some sense into him.

Either way, this appears to be one of the neoconservatives’ only tethers to power right now. A man who once called the president “the world’s biggest jackass” now has his ear.

And he certainly isn’t following his colleague Jeff Flake’s advice to take a stand against Trump.

“I’m going to try to stay in a position where I can have input to the president,” Mr. Graham, 62, said in a lengthy interview. “I can help him where I can, and he will call me up and pick my brain. Now, if you’re a United States senator, that’s a good place to find yourself.”

“He’s very popular in my state,” Mr. Graham continued. “When I help him, it helps me back home. And I think it probably helps him to be able to do business with an old rival who’s seen as a deal maker.”

I see what Graham is doing. I think he’s being admirably transparent about it. He’s protecting his right flank in South Carolina and getting the neoconservative viewpoint heard. Bannon must be furious.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.