When GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina displays something resembling a spine, something is clearly up.
That's what happened this week in an exchange between Graham and his latest man crush and golfing buddy, Donald Trump, after Trump dangled the idea of pardoning the Jan. 6 attackers at a Texas rally last weekend.
The next day, Graham called Trump's offer "inappropriate" during an appearance on Face the Nation.
"I don't want to send any signal that it was okay to defile the Capitol," Graham said.
The comments—clearly traitorous to Trump's cult—prompted a rebuke from Trump on Tuesday during a Newsmax interview.
"Lindsey Graham is wrong. Lindsey is a nice guy but he’s a RINO," Trump said, leveling what amounts to a slur among the Trump faithful at Graham.
Now, here's where things get interesting: Graham sat on that slur overnight and then doubled down on it the next day, issuing a relatively lengthy statement reiterating his opposition to pardoning the insurrectionists.
"As a conservative, I firmly believe in law and order and support the police," Graham said at the outset of the statement. "Those who actively engage in violence for whatever political cause must be held accountable and not be forgiven," he added, calling Jan. 6 "one of the darkest days in American history."
It's true that this is the same guy who repeatedly blasted Trump during the 2016 GOP primary and, just hours after Trump's seditionists stormed the Capitol, passionately declared, "Count me out!" But at the end of the day, Graham's protestations have always amounted to nothing but a lot more Trump bootlicking.
That may ultimately happen here too, but the mere fact that Graham had time to weigh his options and then went to the trouble of issuing a statement maintaining his opposition to Trump’s pledge suggests that something bigger is at play here for Senate Republicans.
Graham's first line is likely the most important, grounding his argument in "law and order" and support for the police. Republicans simply cannot claim the mantle of "law and order" while banging the drum to pardon the insurrectionists.
The Jan. 6 attackers also aren’t a particularly popular cause to take up. The public's view on who is at fault for the Capitol attack may vary, but by and large, Americans do not hold the perpetrators in high regard. A Daily Kos/Civiqs poll last year found that 51% of voters believed everyone who broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6 should be arrested, with another 24% saying people who injured others or caused property damage should be arrested. Just 20% of voters said the attackers should not be arrested.
Trump's push for Jan. 6 pardons if he's reelected in 2024 appeals to a fringe minority of Americans, but it's a passionate minority that he desperately needs to maintain political relevance.
However, Trump's political needs are wildly different than those of Senate Republicans—who are currently drooling over the prospect of netting the single seat in November that puts them back in control of the upper chamber. And Graham isn't the only GOP senator who has danced around Trump's pardon madness this week.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was at pains to reject Trump's proposal without infuriating the orange menace.
"I do not think ... that President Trump should have made that pledge to do pardons. We should let the judicial process proceed," Collins told ABC's George Stephanopoulos Sunday.
Yet Collins squirmed when she was pressed on whether she would rule out voting for Trump in 2024, saying only, "It's very unlikely" given the field of "many other qualified candidates."
Gutsy. Collins secured another six-year term in 2020, so she won't even be on the ballot in 2024. Yet the supposed GOP moderate still couldn’t bring herself to reject a man she considered so unfit for office that she voted to impeach him.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the Senate Republican campaign chief, refused to either criticize or endorse Trump's pledge. Instead, he harkened back to his glory days as governor of Florida.
"The way I would do it is go through every case, everybody's cases, and that's what I did when I was governor, case by case," Scott said, according to CNN.
All of that pretzel twisting from Senate Republicans makes one thing very clear: They know that backing pardons for the Jan. 6 attackers—some of whom are charged with seditious conspiracy—is a political loser for them.
As progressive activist Joe Sudbay noted, "This is a tell for Dems who should challenge every Republican on pardoning the insurrectionists, inciting violence, and stealing the presidency."
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