Tap Dancing With Trump: Lindsey Graham’s Quest for Relevance


By Jan. 13, when Mr. Trump was impeached on charges of inciting the riot, Mr. Graham was back on board, offering advice on how to quell a possible revolt by Republican senators. What followed, in the eyes of many Senate colleagues, was a frenzied overcorrection.

Mr. Graham has become an ever-more-frequent face on Fox, denying the existence of systemic racism and decrying federal aid to Black farmers as “reparations.” He posted a video of himself firing an AR-15 bought as protection from marauding “gangs” and forcefully backed Ms. Cheney’s expulsion from House leadership. He has embraced the culture-war grandstanding that he and Mr. McCain mocked when they were a team — recently saying he would “go to war” against students at the University of Notre Dame for trying to block a Chick-fil-A on campus over the anti-L.G.B.T.-rights politics of its executives.

Yet there are signs Mr. Graham may be playing an inside-outside game. He has placed himself at the center of a monthslong effort to draft bipartisan police-reform legislation and recently met with the Rev. Al Sharpton to hear him out on the bill. He voted for Mr. Biden’s infrastructure bill (and got censured for doing so by the Republican Party in Aiken County, S.C.). And when he tested positive for Covid-19 after being inoculated, he made a point of telling vaccine deniers in his own party to get their shots.

During his near-weekly golfing trips to Mar-a-Lago, he said, he is still trying to persuade Mr. Trump to “take it down a notch.” He remains convinced he can get him to play by the rules, and not the other way around.

Many of the people who have known him longest are not so sure.

From his office in Walhalla, just up the road from Central, Mr. Graham’s old law partner, Mr. Brandt, has been thinking about something the senator told him during a visit eight or nine years ago.

“Larry, you are too honest to survive in Washington,” Mr. Graham said. “Eighty-five percent of the people there would sell their mothers to keep their jobs.”

Mr. Brandt ran into Mr. Graham at a local restaurant in 2017, as the senator was beginning to court Mr. Trump. Mr. Brandt took him to task, reminding him of their “85 percent” conversation. “I said, ‘Lindsey, don’t sell your mother,’” he recalled.