Critic's Notebook: John McCain and Lindsey Graham Bring Their Bromance to CNN Town Hall

John McCain and Lindsey Graham  CNN-Screen Shot-H 2017
Courtesy of CNN

The veteran senators talk politics — saying "we need more of that guy, less of the tweeting guy" of Trump's Congressional address — and tear up while describing their friendship.

Is there any more adorable couple in politics than John McCain and Lindsey Graham? For years now, the two Republican senators have engaged in a public bromance, criticizing Republican and Democratic presidents alike, and traveling the world together dozens of times. These two crazy kids shouldn’t be spending time in Iraq and Afghanistan. They should be going to Club Med.  

The lovable codgers’ warm relationship was on full display toward the end of their joint CNN Town Hall appearance Wednesday night. Discussing their long friendship, Graham described how supportive McCain has been to him through the years. “He is loyal to his friends. He loves his country. And if he has to stand up to his party for his country, so be it,” said Graham. “He would die for his country. I love him to death.” By this point, both men were wiping away tears, with McCain patting his heart for emphasis. Gentlemen, time to get a room.

Fortunately, the evening hosted by Dana Bash touched on political issues as well. These two gadflies are the Statler and Waldorf of the Senate, leading the opposition against President Donald Trump’s administration on a host of issues. While they struck a more conciliatory tone at the CNN event, they made it clear that they have every intention of speaking out when they think the president is wrong.

Coming onstage, both men displayed their sardonic humor.

“Is this court-ordered community service?” asked Graham.

“It’s good to be on the most hated channel in television,” joked McCain, before pointing to his colleague and saying, “I translate Senator Graham’s remarks into English.”

Each had good things to say about Trump’s address to Congress the previous night. “I think he laid out a positive agenda,” said McCain. “Frankly, I think it was different from his inaugural address, and that it was well received by the American people.”

“He did a really good job last night,” agreed Graham. “We need more of that guy, less of the tweeting guy. That guy can govern the country.”

“I want to get some questions from the audience,” Bash told them. “No,” joked Graham.  “No,” agreed McCain. “Not from this liberal, commie audience.”

They should have stuck to their guns, because the ensuing questions were forceful and sometimes uncomfortable. The first, about sanctuary cities, came from the father of a 17-year-old son who had been killed by an illegal immigrant.

“I happen to believe it’s simple,” responded McCain. “When Federal laws are passed, municipalities cannot exempt themselves. That would be a breakdown of government.”

“Nobody wants the bad guys. Everybody wants to make sure our laws are respected,” Graham told the man. “Right now, there’s a lady with two kids holed up in a church. Do you want her deported? I don’t. What I want is to keep the people who killed your son from getting back into the country, identify them and kick their ass out. And give that lady a chance to stay here by learning our language, paying taxes, and getting in the back of the line.”

Asked about the contradiction between Trump’s remarks concerning immigration made to television news anchors and the sentiments expressed in his speech, McCain did his best impression of Claude Rains in Casablanca.

“Is this the first time there’s been mixed messages?” he asked dramatically. “I’m shocked, I’m shocked.”

Graham had strong words about Trump’s attempted travel ban. “When you do something like this and it’s perceived that it’s declaring war on the faith, we’re all gonna lose,” he said. “If it’s perceived as making us more safe, and not a Muslim ban, we’re all gonna win.”

Unlike most of their fellow Republicans, McCain and Graham have repeatedly called for investigations into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia and that country’s attempt to interfere in the election.

“If the Russians had succeeded in determining the outcome of the election, that’s a death blow to democracy,” McCain thundered. “I believe that we need a select committee to investigate that.” But he demurred when Bash asked him about the breaking news story involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ conversations with the Russian ambassador, saying that he didn’t have enough information to comment.

“When it comes to Russians, he has a blind spot,” Graham said of Trump. “The bottom line is that Putin is disrupting democracy everywhere. To my Republican friends, we should have no joy in our heart that the Russian efforts hurt Hillary Clinton, even though they didn’t change the outcome. I promise you, we could be next.” He also called for a special prosecutor, adding, “I’ll be the first one to say it needs to be someone other than Jeff.”

When a Russian-born, female Air Force staff sergeant asked the two men why the United States should consider Russia a foe, it was like throwing raw meat to a bear.

“Vladimir Putin wants to restore the old Russian empire,” McCain declared. “He’s a thug, he’s a KGB agent, he’s a killer. All I can say is peace through strength.”

Graham, assuming his position on the tag team, weighed in. “Putin hates democracy,” he said. “He’s a crook. I don’t know what you make as the president of Russia, but he’s estimated to be worth between $40 and $60 billion. Either he’s the best money manager in the world or he’s a crook. I wish our president would stand up to Putin and say that an attack on one party in America is an attack on all of us.”

Both men delivered harsh comments about Trump’s proposed budget, especially its heavy cuts to the State Department. Graham addressed the president directly, looking into the camera: “To President Trump, if you destroy soft power, those diplomatic tools that lead to holding and building, we’ll never win this war. An education to a poor young girl is far more damaging to radical Islam than any bomb. If you take soft power off the table, you’ll be making the same mistake the other two presidents made.”

When a South Carolina woman asked Graham why he has done so much to undermine Trump and what he would say to the millions of people who voted for the president, Graham didn’t back down.

“Here’s what you can expect from me, and what you’ve gotten for the last 20 years,” he replied. “I want to help President Trump. But when I don’t agree with him, I’m OK with saying I don’t. My biggest fear is not losing my job. My biggest fear is not standing up and speaking out when I know what’s right.”

McCain chimed in, saying, “For us to go along just to get along, with any president, whether Republican or Democrat, is an abrogation to our responsibility to the men and women in uniform and the people we represent.”

“The best way to serve the Republican Party is to put the country ahead of everything else, and it all works out,” Graham pointed out.

McCain fondly recalled Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, those “two old Irishmen” who worked together despite their party differences. He said that was the strategy that Trump needs to pursue.

“If the president sees that, then he’ll have the best friends in John McCain and Lindsey Graham,” Graham offered. But he did draw a line, referring to the notorious incident in which Trump publicly revealed Graham’s personal cell phone number.

“I’m giving him the area code, but not the whole number,” Graham joked.

The evening made it clear that watching these two political veterans spar with Trump should prove fascinating during the next four years. And if not, they could easily find receptive audiences should they decide to take their song-and-dance act on the road.