When Sen. Lindsey Graham joined a Republican blockade of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016, he went out of his way to frame his position that a confirmation to the court should never be allowed in an election year as principled, apolitical and utterly permanent.
“I want you to use my words against me,” Graham said then, swearing that he would hold the same stance even if it meant denying a future Republican president the chance to confirm his chosen nominee.
But less than 24 hours after that hypothetical became a reality with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, Graham, now chair of the Judiciary Committee, made a complete and brazen reversal. He promised that he would push forward immediately to confirm President Donald Trump’s pick — seemingly unbothered by the obvious conflict between his position four years ago and his stance now.
“I am certain if the shoe were on the other foot,” Graham wrote Monday to Democrats on the judiciary panel, “you would do the same.”
Just weeks before Election Day, the turnabout by Graham, whose panel will lead the confirmation process for Trump, captures the broader flip-flop of almost the entire Senate Republican Conference, as dozens of senators who held together in 2016 to prevent Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat now rush to deliver the current president his choice to replace Ginsburg.
For Graham, who is facing a tougher-than-expected reelection contest in South Carolina, it is also the latest stage in a remarkable political transformation, from conservative institutionalist and outspoken critic of Trump to a loyal foot soldier for the president.
His switch has drawn bitter criticism from Graham’s political opponents, an ad attacking him as hypocritical and even protests outside his Capitol Hill home, where demonstrators with megaphones and drums gathered Monday morning to demand he not begin the confirmation proceedings.
“He said, ‘Use my words against me!’” they chanted.
In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison, the Democrat challenging Graham, was quick to snap up the senator’s 2016 invitation to use his own statements against him.
“My grandpa always said that a man is only as good as his word,” Harrison wrote on Twitter, linking to video of Graham’s comments. “Sen. Graham, you have proven your word is worthless.”
A spokesman for Graham’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Graham has sought to justify his reversal as a direct response to Democrats’ attempts to weaponize the judicial confirmation process, first by doing away with the filibuster that allowed a minority to block lower-court judicial nominees, and then by stridently opposing Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination in 2018 during a heated confirmation battle.
But the change in confirmation rules occurred in 2013, long before Graham had made his “use my words against me” declaration. And the brutal hearings on Kavanaugh’s nomination had already concluded when Graham reiterated that position in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, saying, “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process has started, we’ll wait till the next election.”
In the letter to Democrats on Monday, Graham offered another reason for his new stance, describing it as a matter of fairness to voters, because, “unlike in 2016, President Trump is currently standing for reelection: The people will have a say in his choices.”
Graham, too, is about to face voters, and his star turn as the ringmaster of confirmation ceremonies is likely to energize Republican voters in his home state, where the president enjoys broad support.
“I don’t know what it is about me and moments and lightning, but lightning has struck again,” Graham said at a campaign event in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday.
But the spotlight is also filled with political perils for Graham. His previous comments, circulated widely in the hours after the announcement of Ginsburg’s death, have injected a shot of energy — and cash — into the campaign of Harrison, who had already raised enormous sums and outspent Graham.
Under the quick timetable envisioned by Trump, who Monday said he would prefer a confirmation vote before the Nov. 3 election, Graham would most likely be stuck in Washington in the runup to the election, keeping him away from the campaign trail at a critical time.
For now, his critics are seeking to increase the pressure on Graham. The Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans dedicated to defeating Trump and his allies in the Senate, has teamed with an anti-Graham political action committee to turn footage of his 2018 remarks into a television advertisement culminating with the phrase: “Hold him accountable.” A spokesman for the Lincoln Project said the group was spending $750,000 to run the ad nationally beginning Tuesday.
Allies of Graham said the chairman was personally infuriated by Democrats’ handling of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which involved allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman when they were both in high school, and has adopted a no-holds-barred attitude ever since. Graham publicly seethed that Democrats were fighting the confirmation even though he had voted for Obama’s first two Supreme Court nominees and was excoriated for it by his own party.
In June, Republican Voters Against Trump aired an ad featuring a 2015 video of Graham, then a presidential candidate, calling Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” who should be told to “go to hell.” The same ad, aired in North and South Carolina, also featured an emotional Graham calling former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, “as good a man as God ever created.”
It is unclear whether Graham’s latest turnabout will do lasting political damage to him. Republican strategists say that Harrison is facing an uphill battle simply by virtue of the partisan leanings of the state. Polling has shown Graham in a dead heat with his opponent, a former lobbyist who served as the first Black chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and Democrats nationwide have rushed money to the race, eager to deny the incumbent a fourth term.
In South Carolina, though, where voters recently ranked the Supreme Court as one of their top issues, Graham’s central role in the confirmation hearings may prove to be a galvanizing force. Over the weekend, he was already positioning the vacancy as a defining issue of his campaign.
“I know Jaime Harrison — who opposed the Kavanaugh nomination and joined the mob in the destruction of this fine man — will oppose ANY Trump nominee,” Graham said on Twitter. “I hope the people of South Carolina know that as well.”