Senator Lindsey Graham has defended his refusal to abandon Donald Trump in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the Capitol, saying that though the former president has “a dark side … what I’m trying to do is just harness the magic”.
He also said Trump’s continued grip on the Republican party could make it “bigger, he can make it stronger, he can make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it.”
The South Carolina Republican initially said the US could “count [him] out” from backing Trump after the riot but he quickly dropped any show of independence.
On Sunday he was speaking to Axios on HBO at the end of a weekend in which Trump was reported to have told the Republican party to stop fundraising off his name and was also reported to be preparing to leave Florida for the first time since leaving office, to visit New York, his home city.
Trump retains a firm grip on his party, topping polls of prospective nominees for president in 2024. He is eligible to run for office again because he was acquitted at his second impeachment trial, on a charge of inciting the Capitol riot.
Five people including a police officer died as a direct result of the storming of Congress by a crowd Trump had told to “fight like hell” in support of his attempt to overturn election defeat by Joe Biden.
Graham was one of 43 Republicans who voted to acquit.
“Donald Trump was my friend before the riot,” he said, of a man who attacked him viciously in the 2016 Republican primary and who he famously said would destroy the party if he became its nominee. The senator pivoted once Trump took power, to become one of his closest and most eager allies.
“I’m trying to keep a relationship with him after the riot,” he said. “I still consider him a friend. What happened was a dark day in American history. And we’re going to move forward.”
Graham said the best way for Republicans to do that was “with Trump, not without Trump”.
Jonathan Swan countered that Trump is “still telling everyone he won in a landslide”, a lie repeatedly thrown out of court and which has placed the former president in legal jeopardy.
“I tell him every day that he wants to listen,” Graham said, “that I think the main reason he probably lost in Arizona was he was beating on the dead guy called John McCain.”
McCain, an Arizona senator, 2008 presidential nominee and close friend and ally to Graham, never accepted Trump as the face of his party. Trump attacked McCain viciously, even over his record in the Vietnam war, in which McCain endured captivity and torture while Trump avoided the draft.
Asked if he could afford to abandon Trump because he is not up for re-election until 2026, Graham said: “Yeah, I could throw him over tomorrow … I could say you know that’s it’s over, it’s done. That’s just too easy.
“What’s hard is to take a movement that I think is good for the country, trying to get the leader of the movement, who’s got lots of problems facing him and the party and see if we can make a go of it.
‘Mitt Romney [the 2012 nominee] didn’t do it, John McCain didn’t do it. There’s something about Trump. There’s a dark side. And there’s some magic there. What I’m trying to do is just harness the magic.
“To me, Donald Trump is sort of a cross between Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan and PT Barnum. I mean, just bigger than life.”
Helms, a North Carolina senator who died in 2008, was a hardline conservative and segregationist, in the words of one columnist when he died, an “unabashed racist”. PT Barnum was a 19th-century businessman, politician, controversialist and circus impresario.
Trump, Graham insisted, “could make the Republican party something that nobody else I know could make it. He can make it bigger, he can make it stronger, he can make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it.”