MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
One hundred percent with the president - that's Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, talking there about President Trump's national emergency declaration. A resolution to block that declaration has passed the House. It looks set to pass the Senate, too. This is one of many areas where Senator Graham, who once called Trump a kook and unfit for office, has recently allied himself squarely with the president.
We caught up with Graham just as he returned to Capitol Hill from the White House this morning. He and Trump had been talking about the border. And I began by asking, by voting against this resolution, blocking the president's national emergency, are you failing to stick up for Congress?
LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think Congress is failing to do what it should do. Congress, in the past, has passed legislation - $44 billion in 2013 for border security, 9 billion for barriers. We all voted for a $25 billion border security package. So all of a sudden to say that the border is not broken is unusual. I hate that the president has to use this statute. But it's a statutory grant to the president. It's been used 50 times. And I'm willing to support him this time.
KELLY: Never in the case where Congress has just explicitly voted to block this from happening, though.
GRAHAM: There's nothing in the statute that says what the limits are. If you don't like the statute, rewrite it.
KELLY: May I ask you to respond to a point one of your fellow Republicans made? This is your fellow senator, Thom Tillis, who is right with you in saying, I - he supports the president on border security. He thinks the president is rightly frustrated with how this has played out. But he says, "it's my responsibility to preserve the separation of powers and curb executive overreach," end quote. What part of that do you disagree with?
GRAHAM: Well, it's not executive overreach when the president is acting pursuant to statutory authority granted to him by the Congress.
KELLY: Is it executive overreach if he's deciding how to spend money that Congress has voted to stop him from spending?
GRAHAM: That's what the whole statute allows him to do. It allows him to take military construction money and reprogram it for a national emergency if he declares one. He's not doing anything inconsistent with the statute.
KELLY: You've prided yourself on working with Democratic presidents. I know you voted yes to confirm justices Kagan and Sotomayor.
GRAHAM: Voted on the gang debate bill under his leadership. And the White House did a good job during Obama years putting that bill together.
KELLY: Having now given your support to a Republican president when he decides to declare a national emergency, can we put you down on record that you will lend your support when a future Democratic president does the same?
GRAHAM: If it makes sense. One, it's got to be a national emergency, and they have to make a compelling case. And they're limited statutorily to moving money around in the military construction account. So to those Republicans who think this is a vehicle to turn the entire government upside down, you're not reading the statute.
KELLY: Setting aside the border for a second, is there any issue on which you're willing to stake out a position that runs counter to the president's?
GRAHAM: Yeah. I think MBS was directly involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.
KELLY: You're talking about...
KELLY: ...The crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
GRAHAM: Yeah. I was definitely opposed to withdrawing all of our troops from Syria.
KELLY: But stay with Saudi Arabia for a second since you raised the example. What are you going to do about it?
GRAHAM: I've introduced legislation with Senator Menendez to sanction him individually.
KELLY: And is there any measure that will rein in the president or force the president to acknowledge responsibility on the part of MBS - Mohammed bin Salman?
GRAHAM: I think under the global Magnitsky Act, he should have already submitted a report to Congress about whether or not he believes MBS could be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act. I think they have not acted appropriately under the statute, the administration. So I think the answer to Congress is to pass legislation on our own. I'm definitely willing to do that.
KELLY: I want to stay on this issue of your relationship with the president. A lot of people have asked, as you know, what happened to the Lindsey Graham of 2016 who called the president a kook and now says you're a hundred percent with him?
GRAHAM: Well, he lost (laughter). I called him - let's see. I ran out of adjectives. Obviously I didn't like the campaign the president ran. I didn't even vote for him. I voted for Evan - can't remember the guy's name. I wouldn't know him if he walked in the door.
GRAHAM: But I do know this. I want him to be successful. I wanted to Obama to be successful. The bottom line is he won. I lost. People in South Carolina expect me to work with him. I'm trying to work with him the best I can. I've come to like him personally. I don't like everything he says or does, but he is president.
KELLY: Have you come around to the view that he is a good president?
GRAHAM: Yeah. From a conservative's point of view, what's not to like? If you like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, which I do - great choices. If you like cutting taxes, which I do - great decision. So from my point of view, it's been a very successful presidency.
KELLY: So were you wrong in 2016?
GRAHAM: He's proven to me that he's been a better president than I thought he - really, I had very low expectations. But what he does is he listens to people, including me and others. He adjusted his policies in Syria because he listened. President Obama - I begged him along with Senator McCain not the withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. We'll stand behind you. And he didn't listen. You know, Trump's frustrated these wars go on so long. They cost so much. I get it. At least he's willing to listen and make adjustments. And I appreciate that.
KELLY: You're up for re-election next year, Senator. How much of your support for the president is linked to your desire to be re-elected and not get primaried in South Carolina?
GRAHAM: Well, I want him to be successful just as a general proposition. And when I pick a fight with him, it's over something that I believe in. So from my point of view, Kavanaugh was a turning point in my political life in the sense I was seen as fighting for a good nominee who was being poorly treated. And that did more to help me probably in South Carolina than anything that I can remember in the last 20 years.
KELLY: And I've seen you quoted as saying, hey, if you don't want to get re-elected, you're in the wrong business. But where do you draw the line between wanting to get re-elected and being willing to do anything, to say anything to get re-elected?
GRAHAM: When I - well, when I think he's wrong, I say so. You know, I helped Obama where I could. It is in my nature to try to work with my colleagues and whoever the president is to get outcomes that I think are good for the country. Bush beat McCain, and we wound up being good friends. And that was a pretty rocky start. After 9/11, I did what I could to help President Bush deal with a world that was on fire. So I'm openly supportive of the president. And when we have differences, I share them with him privately. And sometimes publicly, we just disagree.
KELLY: You mentioned Senator McCain, who was your best friend.
KELLY: I wrote on Twitter this morning that I was about to interview you, and a lot of people want to hear you respond to a McCain question. And specifically, do you think Senator McCain would vote to block this emergency resolution?
GRAHAM: Yeah, I don't know. That's a good question. You know, John and I were friends for reasons apart from how we vote.
KELLY: A lot of people also want to know if you worry that you've got him rolling in his grave by some of your recent support for the president.
GRAHAM: I doubt it (laughter). I think if you know anything about me - is that John McCain lost to Obama, and the first thing he did was go to Chicago and say, let me help you if I can. He fought him like a tiger and worked with him where he could. And at the end of the day, you know, John McCain was a political figure. You know, when John McCain got in cycle, he would focus on the conservative nature of John McCain.
And at the end of the day, I unashamedly want this president to be helpful. And it is in my nature to work with people on both sides of the aisle, including Trump. To those who think the only way you can honor John McCain is to, you know, work against President Trump, you really don't understand what John McCain was all about.
KELLY: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham - Senator, thanks so much.
GRAHAM: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, this was great.
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