Lindsey Graham, a Longtime Foreign Policy Hawk, Bows to Trump on Ukraine

REUTERS/Nathan Howard
Judiciary Committee Ranking Member U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 31, 2024.

Last May, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) visited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, warmly embracing the embattled leader and later urging President Biden to “do more” to help the nation as it fights off Russia’s invasion.

But this week, Graham voted repeatedly against sending $60 billion in aid to that nation as well as against other military funds for Israel and U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific. The longtime hawk dramatically announced on the Senate floor that he also would no longer be attending the Munich Security Conference – an annual pilgrimage made by world leaders to discuss global security concerns that’s been a mainstay of his schedule.

“I talked to President Trump today and he’s dead set against this package,” Graham said on the Senate floor on Sunday, a day after the former president said at a rally that he would let the Russians do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies that did not spend enough on defense. “He thinks that we should make packages like this a loan, not a gift,” Graham said.

Graham’s about-face on Ukraine aid sends a stark warning signal to U.S. allies that even one of the most aggressive advocates for U.S. interventionism abroad appears to be influenced by the more isolationist posture pervading the Republican Party.

It marked a departure for the senator who was harshly critical of Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy when he ran against him for president in 2015, in part on a message of launching a U.S. invasion of Syria. And even as he cozied up to Trump once he became president on numerous other issues, the Air Force veteran continued to criticize Trump on foreign policy, including for wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria.

With his latest move, Graham has tied himself even tighter to Trump as the former president moves toward clinching the Republican nomination.

The episode has also eroded Graham’s credibility among colleagues who worked closely with him to shape a bipartisan package of border policy reforms that Republicans demanded be attached to the foreign aid in exchange for their votes – only to backtrack and help kill it in the end.

Graham’s work on the border measure was a throwback to his earlier Senate role as a dealmaker on immigration, including as a key member of the failed Gang of Eight immigration group in 2013 and a Trump-era negotiating group in 2018. But now firmly in the MAGA wing of the party, Graham was one of the senators imploring GOP leadership that border security must be part of any Ukraine bill last fall.

The senator appeared sincerely interested in getting a deal through, publicly defending the negotiations from right-wing attacks and arguing that the policy could help Trump if he wins reelection.

“To those who think that if President Trump wins, which I hope he does, that we can get a better deal – you won’t,” Graham told reporters in January. “You got to get 60 votes in the United States Senate.”

But some negotiators believe Graham’s tone changed after a mid-January visit with Trump at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, according to people familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly. Shortly after the visit, Trump began posting more harshly against the bill, and Republican senators began defecting from the deal before it was even announced. Graham began raising more pointed concerns about whether the parole provisions of the deal were strong enough.

Still, Graham stayed at the table as negotiators worked to assuage his concerns. He pushed for a tougher rollback of the president’s use of parole at land ports of entry, which was eventually agreed to after Graham signed off. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), a key negotiator, ran point on the relationship, ensuring that Graham was happy with the final deal. But Graham’s shifting demands prompted her to privately refer to him as a “chaos monster” at times, according to two people who heard her use the term.

Just a few hours before the text of the deal was released, Graham praised it in an interview on the “Fox News Sunday” program. “I hope people keep an open mind,” he said. “If you believe, as President Trump does, our laws are broken, then you got to fix them.”

But the day after the deal was released – amid a Republican backlash, a declaration from House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) that it was “dead” and an angry retort from Trump – Graham backed away from the plan, to the annoyance of others involved in the negotiations. (Graham was not alone, however. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who also helped negotiate the deal, also abandoned it amid the GOP furor.)

The tensions between Graham and Sinema from the final weeks of the negotiations spilled out onto the Senate floor last Thursday after just four Republicans voted to pass the bill. She interrupted his floor speech bemoaning the inadequacies of the border deal. Sinema repeatedly pointed out to Graham while he was speaking that he helped negotiate the deal and that the only way to introduce the changes he claimed he wanted was to vote to proceed on the bill and then offer amendments.

“You don’t have a snowball’s chance of getting it passed in the House,” Graham angrily retorted.

At one point in his short speech, Graham called the policy in the deal “good” and at another point a “half-ass effort,” before yielding the floor. He then began talking once more – just long enough to tell the prime minister of Poland, who had criticized Republican senators who voted against the deal, that he “could care less” what he thinks.

The display provoked anger from some of his fellow negotiators.

“His top staff were in the room when we negotiated the bill,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote in a social media post about the Sinema-Graham back and forth. “We negotiated key provisions directly with him.”

Graham not only backed away from the border deal, but he also declined to join 22 of his GOP colleagues on Tuesday to support the foreign aid package after it was stripped of the border provisions.

The drastic change of heart – even in a politician who has shown a chameleon-like proficiency at adapting to the Trump takeover of the GOP – has prompted speculation that Graham could be worried about his political standing in his pro-Trump state or that he may have his eye on a Cabinet position in a future Trump administration.

“Graham’s always worked on the premise that he’s going to do what it takes to be in the room where he thinks he can have influence … but for those who’ve watched his independent streak over the years, it is perplexing,” said Chip Felkel, a communications strategist who has worked on multiple Republican campaigns in South Carolina. “After the passing of John McCain, we have seen less and less of that independent streak.”

Graham was a longtime foreign policy ally of McCain, an Arizona senator, but the two began to part ways on some issues before McCain’s death in 2018.

Others speculated that Graham, who is not up for reelection until 2026, might be responding to the intensity of feeling in the GOP base on Ukraine. “Going against Trump [on Ukraine] right now is a death sentence,” said one Republican House lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the political backlash they have faced. “It’s kind of risky for him at this point, given how angry the base is.”

Graham and his staff declined an interview request for this story. But the senator attempted to explain his shifting position in an hour-long floor speech on Monday. He slammed isolationism as a worldview, criticized a lack of adequate defense spending in the United States, and said it “breaks my heart” that the United States pulled out of Afghanistan.

But he also declared he would not support the aid package, after thinking about the issue for “days” and acknowledging a “tug of war” between him and Trump on foreign policy. He said he had visited Iraq and Afghanistan more than 50 times, often with his friend McCain, and that U.S. withdrawal from its role around the world would only embolden autocrats.

“But having said all of that, for me to be able to convince people in South Carolina to continue to support conflicts overseas, I have to prove to them I get it when they tell me what about their own country,” Graham said. “So I’m not going to Munich. I’m going to the southern border.”

He encouraged the House to change the package by making the aid a loan, among other things.

The announcement came as a shock to those who have watched Graham’s career. He served as co-host of the bipartisan delegation to the international Munich Security Conference in recent years, a group that nicknamed itself the “McCain delegation” after the late senator who was a fixture at the conference. In 2017, Graham declared to world leaders gathered in Munich that it would be “a year of kicking Russia in the ass in Congress.”

John Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine during the George W. Bush administration, said Graham’s U-turn on Ukraine aid is “not a positive message” for allies. “This really is a time for people who understand American national security interest to stand up,” he said.

McCain used his last trip to the Munich conference to reassure U.S. allies that Trump’s view of the world – and hostility to NATO – would not shake congressional support for the current world order.

“His old buddy Senator McCain has got to be rolling in his grave right now,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) when Reid was Senate leader. “They struck a very hawkish, pro-U.S., pro-interventionist stance time and time again. Now when the stakes couldn’t be higher, he’s bending the knee to the demands of Donald Trump.”