The release of Bob Woodward’s book Fear as well as last week’s anonymous New York Times op-ed have emphasized something we already knew: that many of the people surrounding President Donald Trump are worried that he controls the most powerful arsenal in human history and see it as their job to curb his worst impulses and coax him into the mainstream.
On paper, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a longtime member of Congress with a reputation for bipartisanship, experience in the military, and a rolodex full of foreign leaders, would seem like exactly the sort of mainstream, establishment voice you’d want Trump listening to. But the account in Woodward’s book of Graham’s influence on Trump suggests flaws in the notion that the national security establishment can contain the president, or that it we would even want it to.
Woodward’s book details how Graham, who had called Trump a “jackass” and a “bigot” when the two were running for the GOP nomination, shockingly morphed into one of Trump’s most-called-upon outside advisers, particularly on national security and foreign policy.
This account likely comes from Graham himself, who appears to have been a major source for the book. Fear includes verbatim accounts of several one-on-one conversations between the senator and the president that only Graham would be in a position to relate to Woodward, including a midnight phone call. In a recording of an August conversation between Woodward and Trump released last week, the author mentions having spoken with Graham.
The book also describes Graham’s archrival in the White House, Steve Bannon, as being aware of their closeness: “Some days, it seemed to Bannon that Senator Graham had moved into the West Wing.” At one point Bannon is quoted as saying Trump “loves Graham. Graham can sell him anything.”
But that doesn’t exactly seem to be the case, particularly on North Korea, perhaps the dominant national security issue of the Trump presidency so far. And it’s probably for the best that Trump didn’t take Graham’s advice.
In a March 7 meeting, Graham told the president he had two options for dealing with Kim Jong-un: “You can accept they’ve got a missile and tell them and China that if you ever use it, that’s the end of North Korea …. That’s scenario one. Scenario two is that you tell China that we’re not going to let them get such a missile to hit our homeland. And if you don’t take care of it, I will.” Graham favored Scenario 2, telling Trump that if North Korea developed such a missile, Graham said, “you’ve got to whack them.”
The idea of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea was a little much even for Graham’s friend John McCain, who was never exactly shy about using military force, but in a later meeting with Graham and the president, warned Trump that such a strike would be “very complicated” since the North Koreans “can kill a million people in Seoul with conventional artillery. That’s what makes it so hard.”
Graham replied to that objection saying, “If a million people are going to die, they’re going to die over there, not here,” a remark that even Trump called “pretty cold.” (Graham used versions of this line on the Sunday shows last year, sometimes attributing it to Trump himself.)
In September 2017, Graham reportedly told Trump that he should tell the Chinese government that “China needs to kill him and replace him with a North Korean general they can control … they need to take him out. Not us, them. And control the nuclear inventory there.” It’s not clear from the book why Graham thinks China would be interested in doing this or would be able to in a way that wouldn’t lead to the collapse of a nuclear-armed state.
Woodward also recounts an extremely alarming episode from early 2018, just after Trump’s infamous “big button” tweet directed at Kim. Trump apparently wanted to send a follow-up tweet announcing that he was ordering the families of U.S. service members out of South Korea. It was well understood that North Korea would view this as a “signal that the United States was seriously preparing for war” and the potential tweet “scared the daylights out of the Pentagon leadership,” according to Woodward.
This is exactly the nightmare scenario observers have envisioned for Trump and North Korea: that an ill-advised tweet from Trump would convince Kim he’s under attack and prompt him to strike first. As it happened, it seems like Trump may have gotten the idea from Graham, who in December said on Face the Nation, “It’s crazy to send spouses and children to South Korea. I think it’s now time to start moving American dependents out of South Korea.”
When Trump actually considered the idea, Graham evidently got cold feet, telling him, according to the book, “You need to think long and hard before you make that decision. … I don’t think you should ever start this process unless you’re ready to go to war.” But the country was a lot closer to war with North Korea than most of us realized earlier this year, and Graham’s influence hadn’t helped.
Graham’s arguments were more in line with conventional wisdom in advocating for a U.S. strike on Bashar al-Assad’s military in response to its use of chemical weapons in 2017. Trump reportedly called Graham at midnight the night of the strike to say, “I bet you are the happiest guy in town. During that conversation, when Trump became emotional about the images he had seen of children killed and injured in Assad’s chemical attack, Graham said, “Mr. President, I can show you pictures like that from all over the Mideast.”
Woodward notes that Graham’s remark unwittingly echoed an argument made by Bannon a few days earlier against the strike. The White House strategist had snarked in a meeting with Trump’s national security team, “Let me go get some pictures of sub-Saharan Africa. Okay? Let me get some of what’s happening down in Guatemala and Nicaragua. If this is the standard for a fucking missile strike, let’s go everywhere. Let’s do everything.”
This is a classic argument against humanitarian intervention that has been employed by, among others, Barack Obama: Why intervene in one situation when there are dozens of atrocities happening around the world at any given time? But for Graham, it’s an argument for employing military force to punish adversaries as widely as possible, all over the world. To his credit—and his political detriment—Graham doesn’t downplay the costs of military force or sugarcoat his message. When he was running for president, he argued that defeating ISIS would require deploying tens of thousands of new troops to Syria to stabilize the region even though he noted, “The amount of money it takes to reconstruct Syria makes Iraq look like a walk in the park.”
Graham’s maximalist view of the use of U.S. military force also emerged during the debate last year over whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. (In one of the odder exchanges of the book, Trump offers Graham the position of ambassador to Pakistan, which Graham unsurprisingly rejects.) Graham sided with Trump’s national security team—and opposed Bannon—in arguing for an increase in troops, but, unlike the other hawks, he did not suggest that this course of action would bring the conflict to a conclusion. When asked by Trump “how this ends,” Graham replied, “It never ends. It’s good versus evil. Good versus evil never ends. It’s just like the Nazis. It’s now radical Islam.”
This is the sort of sentiment that if voiced by Bannon, a scruffy white nationalist with a penchant for rants about “Persia,” is received as grandiose and apocalyptic. But somehow it’s considered well within the realm of acceptable opinion when voiced by someone like Graham on a Sunday show or a think tank panel.
This is not to say that Bannon’s worldview is acceptable or that Trump’s instincts are sound. Fear contains more than enough evidence that Trump’s impulsiveness poses a grave danger to the country and the world. But it should be equally unsettling that Lindsey Graham, whose advice would have launched a war that killed at least hundreds of thousands in Korea and who sees the endless, ever-expanding nature of the war on terrorism as a feature not a bug, is considered one of the “mainstream” voices in the room.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus