South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham joined me this morning:
HH: I am joined now by United States Senator Lindsey Graham from the great state of South Carolina. Good morning, Senator, how are you?
LG: Good morning, Hugh, how are you doing? Good.
HH: I’m terrific. I’m terrific. I want to begin by saying I appreciate greatly the photo that you sent out of yourself with Senator McCain and Senator Lieberman, good friends coming to be with their pal at a time of great trial. How’s the Senator doing?
LG: Amazingly well. He completed his chemo and radiation treatments. He’ll do an MRI later on to see how well it did and come up with some therapy solutions, and you know, good spirits. Tough old bird, that’s all I can say.
HH: Well, thank you for, it’s still good to put that out there. Now let’s go to Donald Trump, who’s tweeting at the Senate this morning. Fifteen minutes ago, he tweeted out I requested that Mitch M. and Paul R. tie the debt ceiling legislation into the popular VA bill, parens, which just passed, for easy approval. They didn’t do it. So now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up, as usual, on debt ceiling approval. Could have been easy, now a mess. Your reaction, Senator Graham?
LG: Well, President Trump is thinking the right way in terms of putting combinations together that will get Democratic votes. Here’s the problem. You’re going to lose about a dozen plus House guys on the Republican side, because they can never vote to raise the debt ceiling, and that means you’ve got to go buy Democrats, find a vehicle that Democrats have to vote for, tie it together. And I like the approach. Whether the VA bill is the right approach, I don’t know. But I like the idea he’s come up with, which is marrying it up with something they need.
HH: Is the stories about tension between the Leader and the President overstating the ordinary?
LG: I think it’s, you know, well, there’s nothing ordinary about Donald Trump, okay? And so the first thing you’ve got to realize is this is not an ordinary guy. These are not ordinary times. So Mitch is trying to navigate a 52 seat majority and get big things done with no Democratic support. It’s tough. The President’s frustrated. I’ve been on your show, and this bloc grant approach is taking off like you would not believe. We had a great meeting yesterday. I think we’re going to pull a rabbit out of a hat on health care reform, but the President is frustrated. For seven years, we promised to repeal and replace. You just can’t move on and say all right, well, we tried our best when we have not. But Mitch is very strong in the conference. People support him as our leader. And we’re all dealing with President Trump the best way we can, and he is frustrated about not fulfilling promises. So am I. Let’s take another shot at health care.
HH: There’s nothing ordinary about Donald Trump is maybe going to be the understatement of the year, Senator Graham. He just tweeted out a retweet of a four frame photograph of him moving over President Obama’s image underscored, best eclipse ever.
HH: So you think that’s funny? It is funny, but he’s going to get killed for that…
LG: Why not?
HH: I mean, he’s going to get hammered over and over.
LG: I think it was very good. Okay, so here’s the deal. The media has gone absolutely insane over his insanity. So…(laughing) the point is, is that the President can be very disciplined. His Afghan speech was excellent in terms of substance and tone. He listened to the generals, unlike President Obama who ignored sound military advice. President Trump’s going to take it. He goes to Phoenix and kind of goes nuts on stage, but that’s Donald Trump. I am going to work with him where I can. I actually like the guy. And you know, he’s a street fighter from New York, and nothing’s going to change.
HH: But when you say the media’s gone insane over his insanity, you don’t really mean he’s insane.
LG: No, no.
HH: Listen to Don Lemon two nights ago. I found this to be an abdication of professionalism on a level that I have not heard before, and I like Don Lemon. I’ve been on his show a lot when I used to do CNN stuff. But this, just listen to this.
DL: Well, what do you say to that? I’m just going to speak from the heart here. What we have witnessed was a total eclipse of the facts, someone who came out on stage and lied directly to the American people and left things out that he said in an attempt to rewrite history, especially when it comes to Charlottesville. He’s unhinged, it’s embarrassing, and I don’t mean for us, the media, because he went after us, but for the country. This is who we elected president of the United States, a man who is so petty that he has to go after people who he deems to be his enemy like an imaginary friend of a six year old. His speech was without thought. It was without reason. It was devoid of facts. It was devoid of wisdom. There was no gravitas. There was no sanity there. He was like a child blaming a sibling on something else. He did it. I didn’t do it. He certainly opened up the race wound from Charlottesville, a man clearly wounded by the rational people who are abandoning him in droves, meaning those business people, and the people in Washington now who are questioning his fitness for office and whether he is stable, a man backed into a corner, it seems, by circumstances beyond his control and beyond his understanding.
HH: So Senator Graham, lied, unhinged, embarrassing, petty, imaginary friend, no sanity, clearly wounded, fitness, stable, what do you make of that?
LG: Well, I hear that every day about me.
LG: But breaking news, he won, Don, being exactly the way he was in Phoenix. He won giving these kinds of speeches. People at CNN, they’re literally, he’s driving them crazy. Trump is making a political decision here to be presidential, listen to the generals, and to go back to his base and fire them up and put pressure on the Senate and the House to do things he wants. He’s not the first president to use the bully pulpit to try to push the country in a particular direction or to keep his base on board. He’s making a conscious decision to let his base know that when I said I want to build the wall, I meant to build the wall. He’s running against Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and others. The Congress is very unpopular, particularly with the Republican base, so there’s nothing unhinged about it. It’s a political strategy that I’m not so sure is smart, but it’s a very thought-out strategy. There’s nothing crazy about it. It’s a political strategy.
HH: Thank you for saying that. That is exactly what, I’ve been trying to tell people we have a coalition government in the United States right now – the party of President Trump and the Congressional Republicans. And coalition governments get sparky occasionally. They fray and they run into each other. But they’re, but they don’t fall apart. They go back to their corners and they beat up on each other, but they don’t fall apart. And this one’s not going to fall apart. Now talk to me about the debt ceiling, Senator Graham, because why can’t we attach it to, example, the repeal of the BCA and the building of the wall and defy Democrats to vote to both default on our debt obligation, default on our security and default on our military forces? Why can’t we do that?
LG: I don’t think that’s a particularly bad strategy. So what you do is how about let’s play politics with the majority for a change? We’ve been on defense ever since I’ve been up there. We’ve got the floor. We can, you know, determine what comes to the floor. Let’s take some hard votes. Let’s make Democrats say no to raise the debt ceiling, no to funding the troops, no to helping veterans, see how many of them break. And I don’t know why we don’t do that. And I think that’s what President Trump is saying. I’d like to take it to the other side. I want to work with them. I’ve got a reputation of working across the aisle. But they have no problem at all, you know, popping us in the face. Let’s pop them back.
HH: Because as I recall, the debt ceiling debates of the past many years, it was always the Republicans were putting the full faith and credit of the United States at risk and it was a horrible thing. So if you attach building the border fence to that, or repeal of the BCA, which is the most important thing to me with regards to the Pentagon, they should suffer the same rhetoric, which is they’re putting the full faith and credit of the United States at risk for their political ends.
LG: We should use our majority in a clever way. So if you had putting the country at default and building a wall, so that’s like 0 for 2. Nobody wants us to default on the debt, and almost everybody wants to secure the border. That’s a pretty good combination. Most everybody with a half a brain understands the military’s been gutted because of sequestration and they need relief yesterday. I’m all for this. I mean, they do this to us. Now we’ve got to work together. That’s true. But there’s a time to put them in a box. They put us in a box. Let’s put them in a box when it comes to the debt ceiling. The President is not crazy to attack the Congress. He’s not crazy to think of ways to put Democrats in a bad spot regarding the debt ceiling. They do this all the time to us.
HH: Now let me ask you about the Budget Control Act. I asked your former colleague, Senator Talent, earlier today whether or not Congress bears its share of responsibility for the loss of life on the John McCain, and all the other ships that have had collisions because of the readiness crisis in the military, and he said yes, and I’m going to start telling them that. Do you agree with him, Senator Graham?
LG: 100%. So the Budget Control Act has taken the military spending down to historically low levels. We’re on track to have the smallest army since 1940, the smallest navy since 1915, training and readiness has been very much compromised. We’re putting our troops at risk. The pilots don’t fly enough. We have been using Band-Aid approaches to maintenance. So yes, we have shot down, Congress has shot down more airplanes and mothballed more ships than any enemy could ever hope to do, using sequestration.
HH: So again, that’s something I would come back to. Let me ask you about your colleague. The President is in the middle of a tweet storm, and I’ll ask you about that in a second, Senator, after we get all of them out. It’s clearly a multipart tweet. But Jeff Flake is your colleague. I’m going to interview Kelli Ward this weekend. I’ve interviewed Jeff Flake already. Will you be campaigning for Jeff Flake’s reelection?
LG: If he wants me to, I will. I think he’s everything good about a human being. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, smart as hell, a real solid fiscal and social conservative with a big heart. He’s a good guy. And when you add up all the things he agrees with, with Trump, they far outweigh what he disagrees.
HH: So I told an audience last night in Chicago, I guess it’s, yeah, two nights ago in Chicago, that the key if they’re upset with the Republicans is to elect more Republicans to beat Claire McCaskill in Missouri and beat Senator Nelson in Florida, and beat Senator Tester in Montana, not to go after the Republicans who are in danger. Agree or disagree, Senator Lindsey Graham?
LG: Yeah, 1,000%. I mean, Arizona’s changing. 50% of the kids in the 1st grade are Hispanic. Jeff Flake has had a very rational, smart approach to immigration. He’s been standing with Hispanic voters. He can win a diverse state. Yeah, my goal is to grow the Republican Party, not destroy it.
HH: Now the President’s latest tweet is the fake news, capital F, capital N, is now complaining about my different types of back to back speeches. Well, there was Afghanistan. He misspelled there. He spelled it their instead of there. There was Afghanistan, parens, somber, the big rally, and we don’t know what he’s going to call that, yet, but he’s clearly making the point that he has got a strategy in these speeches. Do you believe it is, in his mind, a roadmap to an endpoint that he is following? Or is it all improvisation?
LG: Well, no. I mean, I think that the setting for the Afghan speech was in front of military members. He doesn’t like being behind a desk. It was an excellent speech. He made a wise choice. He followed the generals’ advice to turn around a war we can’t afford to lose. In front of the American Legion, very well-done speech about what makes America special, we’re all in it together. The rally is Donald Trump going back to base politics, firing up his base to create political pressure and to keep his people on board for his agenda. So it’s not irrational. So here’s what I would tell the President. Stop watching cable TV. Nobody else watches it. You know, he called me up one night at about 11:00, and I said what are you doing, and he said you’ve got to turn on the TV. This guy just said this. And I said Mr. President, you’re watching MSNBC at 11:00. If you stop watching it, their audience goes down by half.
HH: (laughing) Now wait a minute. You’re hitting my network here, Lindsey Graham.
LG: That’s all I’m saying.
HH: You should tell him to watch it at 8:00 AM on Saturday. He’ll like it more. But you’re hitting my network there.
LG: …like 8:30 on Saturday morning, as a matter of fact, he does, it shuts down the internet, because so many people want to watch.
LG: (laughing) Quit watching this junk. Who cares what, you know, Don Lemon’s a fine fellow, but he’s paid to be, their audience wants to hear Don Lemon say something bad about Trump. People watch Fox who will say something good about Trump. If you watch MSNBC, let me tell you why I hate Trump more than you do. It’s all a game. It’s all about ratings. It’s all about making money. It’s all about, you know, people feeling, you know, like they have something in common with somebody, this validation of feelings. Stop watching cable TV, and you know, come up with an agenda and stick to it.
HH: All right, let me finish by asking you about what I hope is actually going to happen – Graham-Cassidy, because I’m a federalism guy, and I’ve been a local regulator of health care for 18 years in California. If you gave us the money, we would know how to spend it. We really would. Do you have a prayer of getting that resurrected and through to the Conference?
LG: Yeah, we have, so Friday, we’re going to talk with Medicaid directors in key states, Scott Walker and Doug Ducey, Asa Hutchinson, have really been pushing this thing very hard on the Republican governor side. So here’s the concept. Over the next decade, we’re going to spend $1.2 trillion dollars on Obamacare using federal infrastructure and all the problems with Obamacare. So what we’re going to do is take the same amount of money. Under Obamacare, four states get 40% of the funding. They represent 20% of the population. So we’re going to take that $1.2 trillion, and by 2026, every patient throughout the country, no matter where you live, gets about the same contribution from the federal government. We’re seeking funding parity and flexibility. And South Carolina gets 129% increase versus what we would have gotten under Obamacare, because New York, California, Massachusetts and Maryland get 40% of the money. They’re 20% of the population. The flexibility, more funds, this thing’s going to work. It’s the end of single payer health care. We get about, oh, $700 or $800 million more in South Carolina. And now, we’re responsible for delivering health care. You can complain to people in South Carolina if you don’t like the product. I don’t know who you complain to under Obamacare. You can complain to me, but I don’t know anything about it. So we’re going back to federalism. I think this’ll work.
HH: It will work, but can you reintroduce it and put it on the debate and send it to Conference under the reconciliation rules? Is that possible?
LG: Yes, yes. So there’s two things. One, we’ve got to get a formula that gets us to parity in a fair way. Some blue states that have Medicaid expanded at a very high cost are going to have to come down. Red states like South Carolina who didn’t take Medicaid expansion are going to be plussed up. We meet in 2026. We’ve got to get a formula the governors buy into. We’re got to get the Parliamentarian to allow this concept to go through reconciliation. I’m very encouraged about both. The Vice President’s going to be on a phone call with us next week talking with Republican governors. The goal is to get 25 of these Republican governors to come out for the bloc grant approach. In West Virginia, Justice just switched to being a Republican, the governor of West Virginia. If we can get West Virginia on board, they get a big increase. I think you’ve got a good chance of getting Joe Manchin.
HH: Good luck to you on this, Lindsey Graham. It would be a game changer, and we need it. And thanks for your perspective, and give our best wishes to Senator McCain as well. Thank you, Lindsey Graham.
LG: Thank you very much.
End of interview.