President Trump confirms Lindsey Graham’s influence on White House foreign policy

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham boasts he has the ear of President Donald Trump when it comes to foreign policy. On Wednesday, Trump confirmed the S.C. Republican’s influence.

“Lindsey, you know, (on) the Middle East, he’s been there many times. It’s close to his heart,” Trump told a group of reporters from regional news outlets, including McClatchy, in the Oval Office. “People I respect, I listen to.”

Trump’s comments Wednesday were made in the context of the war in Syria.

The Republican president once had suggested he was authorizing an immediate, full-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, citing a campaign promise to reduce the number of foreign wars in which Americans were fighting. Trump’s announcement rattled Graham, a defense hawk who feared the retreat was premature, saying the ISIS terrorist group has not yet been defeated.

Graham since has settled down, saying he now understands Trump is not, in fact, planning to leave the region and abandon key U.S. allies in the war on ISIS. Trump said Wednesday “incorrect reporting” by the media contributed to Graham’s misunderstanding.

“(When) I said I was pulling out I didn’t say I was going fast, slow, or anything. I just said we’re going to start coming out of Syria and everybody thought that meant we were going to be out the next day,” Trump insisted.

But Graham’s change of tune has also been a testament to his relationship with Trump, which allowed him to get answers to his concerns quickly.

Trump often calls Graham on his personal cell phone, and he recently encouraged Graham to travel to Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In part, that meeting was a diplomatic mission to smooth over a disagreement between the Turkish leader and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, on the Syria conflict. When Graham returned from Turkey, he went to the White House to share his findings and press for the administration to put protections in place for U.S. allies in Syria.

“Lindsey knows we’re going to have some kind of a safe zone in between Turkey … and the Kurds, and you know, we have a very good plan,” Trump said at the White House, echoing the proposal Graham has endorsed to ensure the region remains stable without a U.S. presence.

Trump’s remarks might disturb critics who don’t want Graham’s hawkish views to influence decisions regarding war and peace, particularly when the senator is not a member of the president’s cabinet.

But for Graham, Trump’s comments are validating.

Graham has made foreign affairs one of his signature issues during his 24-year congressional career. And, in Trump, the Seneca Republican has found an opportunity to influence U.S. policy at the highest levels of government.

Unlike other presidents came to office with a background in politics, Trump was a novice with few established positions on world issues. By ingratiating himself with Trump, Graham has been able to attempt to fill that policy void, offering up his own ideas on what role the United States should play in international affairs.