In September 2017, just days after President Donald Trump dubbed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “little rocket man,” the president assembled his national security team at the White House to discuss U.S. policy toward the hermit kingdom.
Joining Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was a less formal foreign policy adviser, but one who has frequently exerted his influence in an attempt to sway the Trump administration’s policies. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) attended, and offered a brazen suggestion for dealing with Kim.
Graham recommended that Trump encourage the Chinese government to assassinate Kim and replace him with a North Korean general whom “they control.”
The suggestion, recounted in veteran reporter Bob Woodward’s new book FEAR, would have been a dramatic course of action during a highly tense exchange of words with a hostile foreign power. Trump obviously never acted on the advice, but it underscored the degree to which Graham has leveraged his personal rapport with Trump in efforts to counteract the president’s less hawkish instincts, and push the U.S. toward a more aggressive military posture.
Graham’s spokesman Kevin Bishop declined to comment to The Daily Beast on Woodward’s account of the meeting last year, but acknowledged that Graham has sought to encourage Trump to adopt a more hawkish foreign policy, occasionally in contrast to some of the president’s senior military and foreign-policy aides.
Graham, a recurring Trump golfing buddy, appears to have developed a vocabulary that hits all the right notes in his conversations with the president—warning of hits to his legacy, and trash-talking the Obama foreign policy brain trust at which Trump himself has taken aim. It’s a clever way to push Trump toward a U.S. foreign policy stance more in line with previous Republican presidents than the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, with its skepticism of certain military adventurism.
“Do you want on your résumé that you allowed Afghanistan to go back into the darkness and the second 9/11 came from the very place the first 9/11 did?” Graham asked the president, rhetorically, in an effort to encourage Trump to step up U.S. troop commitments there.
“Well, how does this end?” Woodward recounts Trump asking. “It never ends,” Graham replied, in rhetoric reminiscent of the Trump-maligned neoconservatism of George W. Bush. “It’s good versus evil. Good versus evil never ends.”
During a different private conversation Graham had with Trump late last year, the president assured the senator that he was also open to starting a war with North Korea. “There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program and North Korea itself… If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die over here—and [Trump has] told me that to my face,” Graham said.
But some of Trump’s more prominent military advisers were less sanguine about a North Korean strike, or so a frustrated Graham gathered. When Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told Graham in February that intelligence on North Korea was too sketchy for him to recommend such a strike, Graham, Woodward reports, “sensed that Dunford was stalling Trump’s request given the risk.”
These were hardly the only times Graham had counseled Trump to be more hawkish against the advice of his top military brass. In fact, it’s not even the only time the GOP senator urged Trump to kill a foreign leader.
Woodward’s book depicts a cadre of top Trump administration officials appearing to actively thwart the president’s impulses and, on occasion, some of his orders. According to Woodward, Mattis ignored an order from Trump to have Syrian President Bashar al-Assad assassinated. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in,” Trump reportedly said to Mattis after the Syrian dictator ordered a chemical-weapons attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun last April.
When the anecdote was first reported last week, Graham, unsurprisingly, took the president’s side.
“[Trump] was right. Mattis was wrong. We should have killed the bastard. I am dead serious. After he used chemical weapons the second time we should have done with him what we tried to do with [Muammar] Qaddafi. That was a big mistake,” Graham told The Daily Beast. “If Mattis did that, then he made a mistake. Because there are 500,000 Syrians dead and the whole Middle East turned upside down because we had a very weak approach to Assad. So if that was his reaction to Assad for using chemical weapons the second time, he was right. And anybody who talked him out of it was wrong.”
For Graham, once a fierce critic of Trump during the 2016 primaries, his conversion to Trump booster began shortly into the Trump era. “I am like the happiest dude in America right now,” Graham said on Fox & Friends last April. “We have got a president and a national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.”
Mattis’ reported defiance of Trump’s order to kill Assad came in the early months of Trump’s tenure, when the president still had a close working relationship with Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), among others, and had not yet recruited Graham as one of his top congressional whisperers. Even though Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been publicly feuding with Trump for more than a year, he still spoke regularly with the president and offered his advice on foreign-policy matters.
More recently, though, the two have stopped speaking, according to two sources familiar with their relationship, as Trump is leaning more on Graham and other lawmakers who are more hesitant to publicly criticize him.
Meanwhile, some on Capitol Hill have lamented Graham’s influence over Trump as the president shuns competing voices like Corker.
“Lindsey Graham has been virtually wrong on every foreign policy decision in the last two decades. From Iraq to Libya to North Korea,” said a senior GOP congressional aide. “We would be at war with half the world if Lindsey had it his way. Candidate Trump was right when he tweeted that Graham has zero credibility.”
Joining Graham in cozying up to Trump and offering his own advice has been Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), another former Trump foe from the 2016 GOP primary who has more recently emerged as a steadfast ally of the president on a host of national-security and foreign-policy matters. But if Graham has tried to wield his influence with Trump to pull the trigger on more foreign interventions, Paul has wished to influence Trump in the polar-opposite direction. Paul has publicly called Graham “a danger to the country” for suggesting a war authorization was necessary for North Korea.
Unfortunately for the hawkish Graham, it appears at least some of Paul’s ideas have rubbed off on the president.
In defending his approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other repressive leaders, Trump has in recent months expressed to those close to him a sympathy for Paul’s non-intervention streak, stressing how American politicians of both parties want to recklessly start “World War III,” if only to stick it to Putin or Assad.
Trump has then, in the same breath, praised more dovish Republicans such as “Rand, [who] won’t let that happen,” and will help keep America from slipping into another quagmire or major war, according to a source familiar with Trump’s private comments.