Lindsey Graham Spent a Year Courting Trump, But on Immigration He’s Being Shut Out

In early 2016, during the Republican primaries, Senator Lindsey Graham,
of South Carolina, called Donald Trump a “kook” who was “unfit for
office” and who would be “the most flawed nominee in the history of the
Republican Party.” Graham’s prediction came true, but Trump won the
Presidency anyway. And, eventually, Graham changed tack. After Trump
took office, he and the President started golfing together, sometimes as
frequently as twice in a single week. “President Trump shot a 73 in
windy and wet conditions!” he tweeted after one outing in October.
“Trump International Golf Club is a spectacular golf course,” he wrote
several weeks later, after another “great day of fun playing with
@POTUS.” In late November, Graham assailed the President’s critics in
the media during an interview on CNN. “What concerns me about the
American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy some
kind of kook not fit to be President,” he said. Many saw Graham’s shift
as a pragmatic accommodation rather than a conversion to Trumpism—even
as he has publicly courted the President, the senator has kept his
distance from some of Trump’s most outrageous decisions and statements.
“Graham knows that, in order to get anything done in this town, he has
to get along with the President,” a former Republican congressional aide
told me. “I don’t think he wants to be sidelined like Jeff Flake.”

At the moment, Trump is presiding over a series of hugely consequential
talks in Congress about immigration reform, a policy area that Graham
has worked on for years. “Graham is completely committed to this issue,”
a former Democratic staffer in the Senate, who used to work with him,
told me. In 2013, Graham was a member of the bipartisan “Gang of
Eight
,”
which brokered a deal on comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate,
only to watch the initiative die in the House. For years, he has also
championed legislation known as the DREAM Act, which would create a path
to citizenship for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, who came
to the U.S. as children and have lived here ever since. Trump set off
the current discussions over immigration legislation in September, when
he cancelled an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood
Arrivals, or DACA—which shielded seven hundred thousand Dreamers from
deportation and granted them work permits—and tasked Congress with
devising a substitute policy.

Trump has two opposing impulses on DACA: one is to tout himself as a
bipartisan dealmaker and the other is to reassert the anti-immigrant
vitriol that he believes plays well with his political base. Graham has
encouraged Trump to be the dealmaker, but, inside the White House, key
Trump aides, most notably Stephen Miller, are pushing him in the other
direction. Early last week, Graham seemed to have gained the advantage.
When the President convened Democrats and Republicans at the White House
last Tuesday to talk about a legislative fix to DACA, the President
“sounded like he was channelling Lindsey Graham,” someone close to the
negotiations told me. “I’ll sign whatever bill they send me,” Trump told
the lawmakers. “If they come to me with things I’m not in love with, I’m
going to do it, because I respect them.” Two days later, however, after
six senators—led by Graham and the Illinois Democrat Dick
Durbin—announced a deal, the President
trashed it. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come
here?” Trump reportedly asked during an Oval Office meeting with Graham
and Durbin. Miller had regained the upper hand.

Trump’s outburst destabilized the negotiations. “We had a President that
I was proud to golf with, call my friend,” Graham said on Tuesday,
during a Senate hearing. “I don’t know where that guy went, but I want
him back.” He came up short of blaming the President for the setback,
however, and instead faulted the White House. “We cannot do this with
people in charge at the White House who have an irrational view of how
to fix immigration,” Graham told reporters later. In this, he was likely
referring not just to Miller but also to John Kelly, Trump’s chief of
staff. “Miller and Kelly are to the right of the President on
immigration,” someone close to the White House told me. “The two of them
were with the President just before the Oval Office meeting with Graham
and Durbin, and the President got really worked up.”

The six senators who announced the DACA deal last week have tried to
press on without the President’s endorsement, thinking that, if they
could secure more widespread backing for the deal in Congress, there was
a chance that Trump would come back to the negotiating table to claim
credit. On Thursday, Graham and Durbin are expected to introduce a bill
in the Senate. According to a partial version of the measure leaked
earlier this week, this legislation would offer a path to citizenship
for Dreamers; allocate more money for border-security measures; revise
the long-criticized visa-lottery system; and offer certain legal
protections to the parents of DACA recipients. On Tuesday, a separate
bill—introduced by the Republican Will Hurd, of Texas, and the Democrat
Pete Aguilar, of California—emerged in the House, with broad bipartisan
support. It was billed as a “narrow and
bipartisan

effort to save DACA that could track with the Graham-Durbin bill in the
Senate.

“It’s not just Democrats pushing for something, it’s now a bipartisan group,” a Democratic aide in the Senate told me. The government faces a
potential shutdown on Friday, if Congressional leaders can’t find enough
votes to keep the government funded through next month. Democratic
leadership had previously been
wary of making DACA a condition for voting on a funding bill, but the
President’s recent behavior has made them feel that they have some
political cover. “The President has assured that he and his party will
take the blame if there is a shutdown, not just because of the way he
rejected [the deal] but because of the fact that he hasn’t accepted a
reasonable bipartisan plan to avert all this,” the Democratic aide
added. On Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader,
urged members of her caucus to withhold their votes for a funding measure
unless Republicans met their demands on immigration. The question now is
whether Senate Democrats will take a similar line.

Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to figure out what the President
wants. “It’s just constant whiplash,” the former Republican aide said.
Conservatives searching for reasons to oppose the Graham-Durbin deal
don’t have to look hard—it would carve out legal status for the parents
of Dreamers in the form of Temporary Protected Status, or T.P.S., a
designation which the Trump Administration is currently rescinding for
hundreds of thousands of people. “You’ll have Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and
Rand Paul railing against it in the Senate,” the former aide told me.
“There’ll be those who vote for whatever McConnell”—meaning Mitch
McConnell, the Majority Leader—“votes for. But, with the President
opposed to it, why do they risk it?”

The Republican aide had told me to watch John Cornyn, the Republican
whip in the Senate. “He tends to be half in and half out on every
immigration debate,” the aide said. On Wednesday morning, Cornyn, who’d
previously been circumspect, came out with a definitive pronouncement on
the Graham-Durbin deal. “The ‘Gang of Six’ deal to fix DACA will not get
a vote in the House or the Senate because POTUS will not sign it,” he
tweeted. “Let’s go back to the drawing board.” Later in the afternoon,
McConnell weighed in. “I’m looking for something that President Trump
supports,” he told reporters. “As soon as we figure out what he is for,
then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels.” As
Republican leadership backtracked, Graham made a surprise announcement.
Even if it risked a shutdown, he wouldn’t vote to continue to fund the
government without a DACA deal. After all that time on the golf course
with Trump, the senator could no longer hold back.

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