Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was an early critic of candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Graham said if the GOP elected Trump, they'd get "destroyed" and "deserve it." In another interview, he said Trump was "a race baiting, xenophobic religious bigot."
But after Trump was sworn in, Graham suddenly shifted. Initially, he said Trump was elected by the American people and, therefore, should be given a chance. That evolved into Graham becoming one of Trump's most vocal defenders in Congress.
Graham's pro-Trump diatribes were on full display in confirmation hearings for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as well as throughout Trump's impeachment hearings. Graham urged Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., to ignore a congressional subpoena. He fully supported Trump's unfinished wall at the southern border. In the wake of Trump's lies about the 2020 election, Graham personally called Georgia's Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, urging him to find a way to subvert Biden's victory in the state.
It wasn't until Trump's election lies incited a deadly failed insurrection against the United States Capitol that Graham finally retreated—at least for a little while. In a floor speech hours after the riot, Graham said, "count me out." Weeks later, he was back at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort for meetings with the former President.
But in a surprise to no one, Trump's loyalty to Graham isn't nearly as fierce.
After Trump floated the idea of pardoning some of the January 6 insurrectionists last week, Graham called his comments inappropriate, saying on Face the Nation:
"I don't want to send any signal that it was okay to defile the Capitol. There are other groups with causes that may want to go down to the violent path that these people get pardoned."
Days later, Trump's latest interview with the far-right disinformation outlet Newsmax hit the air, and Trump responded to Graham's criticisms:
"Well, Lindsey Graham's wrong. I mean, Lindsey's a nice guy, but he's a RINO [Republican in Name Only]. Lindsey's wrong. ... Lindsey Graham doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about if he said that."
"RINO" has become one of the most cutting insults for conservatives in the modern-day GOP. Because Trump is the face of the Republican party, RINO has come to mean anyone who steps out of line with Trump. Republicans once lionized by the party—Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the late Senator John McCain of Arizona (a lifelong friend of Graham's), and Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming to name just a few—were largely cast out by the GOP for even occasionally opposing the former President.
Trump has used the insult "RINO" as an insult dozens of times on Twitter before his account was banned for inciting the insurrection. His use of the insult has only increased since then, with Trump often citing "RINO" traits to emphasize opposition to Republican midterm candidates.
Graham responded to Trump's comments in a statement, writing:
“All Americans are entitled to have a speedy trial and their day in court, but those who actively engage in violence for whatever political cause must be held accountable and not be forgiven.”
But he was already the subject of mockery from critics for abandoning his principles in support of Trump.
And, sure enough, conservatives are already decrying Graham after Trump's comments.
For his part, Trump was President for nearly two weeks after the Capitol Riot. By this time, there were nearly 100 arrests made in connection to the breach (that number has since grown to more than 700). Trump could've pardoned them then. In fact, some of them were begging him to do that, only to be disappointed.