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The controversy over Ilhan Omar calling Lindsey Graham “compromised,” explained

A tale of conspiracies, bad faith, and misrepresentation all around.

Rep. Ilhan Omar in January.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, was once upon a time one of Donald Trump’s most vociferous critics in the Republican Party, even going so far as to tweet at one point that “if we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed ... and we will deserve it.” He even referred to Trump on national television as “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.”

More recently, he’s emerged as one of Trump’s most strident allies in the Senate, a member who not only eschews open criticism of Trump but who loudly and proudly defends him at every possible opportunity. The flip has led to questions about why, exactly, he changed his mind — questions that have at times blended with Trump-era liberal paranoia about the role of the Russian government in politics.

Graham is also unmarried and has long been dogged by vague, totally unsubstantiated accusations of being a closeted gay man. Meanwhile, first-term Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is a left-wing member of Congress who has aligned herself with a range of anti-establishment causes including the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel — a topic that is very divisive in Democratic Party politics.

This all came together rather rapidly this week as Omar suggested that Graham was “compromised” in a nonspecific way. Conservatives simultaneously charged her with claiming that Graham is being blackmailed over his closeted sexuality (she did not) while pressuring establishment Democrats to disavow her past comments on Israel.

It’s an extremely 2019 political controversy, full of misunderstandings, baseless charges, and bad faith. Meanwhile, the boring reality is almost certainly that Graham is an opportunist who is leaning so hard into pro-Trump positioning precisely because he was so stridently anti-Trump in the past and needs to make amends.

What Ilhan Omar said and didn’t say

The proximate origin of the controversy is that Qasim Rashid, a writer and activist in the DC area, tweeted an old clip of Graham denouncing Trump paired with the observation that “I can’t even imagine what they have on Graham.”

Omar then quoted Rashid with the added observation, “They got to him, he is compromised!”

In December 2016, Graham revealed that his campaign email account had been hacked by the Russian government. Sarah Kendzior, a scholar of authoritarianism in Central Asia who has refashioned herself as a domestic political commentator in the Trump era, has long used this as the basis for pushing the theory that Graham is being somehow blackmailed by the Russians into loyalty to Trump.

This idea, long simmering on resistance Twitter, got pushed into the mainstream this week through a number of vectors. First, on January 13, Jon Cooper, the head of a self-styled resistance group that mostly seems to funnel money into consultants’ pockets rather than financing actual resistance work, claimed to have been told by a Republican source that Graham is being blackmailed over some unknown sexual kink.

Two days later, MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle interviewed former Rep. David Jolly, who referenced Graham changing his tune on Trump’s bigotry, saying, “I doubt Lindsey Graham could tell you Donald Trump has had a change of heart in the last 24 months, I bet the change of heart has been with Lindsey Graham, not the president.”

Ruhle then enigmatically alluded to the Graham blackmail conspiracy theories, saying “or it could be that Donald Trump or somebody knows something pretty extreme about Lindsey Graham. We’re gonna have to leave it there.”

Then came Omar’s tweet. After that came a Thursday CNN interview in which Omar was asked about the tweet. She said during the interview that “lots of Americans” agree with her that there’s something fishy going on with Graham, and suggested that he had been compromised with campaign finance help, some kind of polling discovery in South Carolina, or promises of a role in Republican Party leadership.

Tom Elliott of Grabien Media clipped this segment on Twitter, saying that Omar said lots of Americans agree with her that Graham is being blackmailed over his (alleged) homosexuality.

Elliott’s tweet, in turn, went viral as Rich Lowry called Omar’s remarks “reprehensible and profoundly stupid,” while S.E. Cupp deemed them “ignorant, homophobic, and unacceptable.”

Omar, of course, did not actually say any such thing in the clip. It is, however, probably fair to say that her tweet was an allusion to the broader sexual blackmail allegations around Graham rather than just a claim that he has leadership aspirations — although, to be technical about it, the current version of the blackmail theory is that he’s being blackmailed not for being gay but for some unknown sexual kink.

Omar essentially seemed to wink at a wild and baseless conspiracy theory and then, when called on it, retreated to a more defensible claim without apologizing or disavowing it in any way. The representative has denied any reference to Graham’s sexuality, however.

Meanwhile, the reality is that she’s become a conservative target for reasons that have nothing to do with Graham.

Omar has a controversial record on Israel

While this drama was playing out on Twitter, House Republicans were hitting Omar over a completely separate issue: Israel, on which she has probably the furthest-left record of anyone in Congress.

Omar, along with fellow newly elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), is a supporter of the BDS movement that advocates boycotting Israel as part of a larger strategy to delegitimize the Israeli government. She’s also no stranger to strident rhetoric on the subject, referring to an “apartheid Israeli regime” in a summer 2018 tweet.

Critics of Israel are often accused of anti-Semitism, and the notion that Israel has “hypnotized the world” certainly smacks of conspiratorial thinking about Jews.

During the CNN interview in which the Graham tweet came up, Omar apologized for the hypnotism tweet. saying she used “unfortunate words,” but did not back down from her basic policy stance.

Republicans have for years been eager to use Israel as a wedge issue against Democrats, at a time when the Israeli government has increasingly aligned with the GOP but most Jewish Americans remain stubbornly liberal in their politics. The main strategy is to push anti-BDS legislation, which is opposed on free speech grounds by many Democrats who would not support BDS itself. The idea is to squeeze mainstream Democrats between pro-Israel groups pushing the anti-BDS laws and BDS supporters themselves, who’ll call for full-throated support of boycotts, all the while casting the BDS movement as anti-Semitic.

Turning Omar and her tweets into a flashpoint, similarly, serves to divide Democrats and, in the specific case of Graham, to divide them over something completely non-substantive.

Lindsey Graham’s behavior is pretty normal

At the end of the day, perhaps the most ridiculous element of this whole controversy is that nothing about Graham’s behavior is particularly odd.

He was an over-the-top Trump critic at a time when being an over-the-top Trump critic was a good way to get attention for his flagging presidential campaign. Many Republicans who once vociferously criticized Trump are now loyal allies (Energy Secretary Rick Perry once called him a “cancer on conservatism”), and essentially all incumbent Republicans are aware that crossing Trump could cost them politically.

Graham represents a very conservative state full of statewide elected officials who’d no doubt love a chance to serve in the Senate. And any of them would be overwhelming favorites to prevail in a general election against the Democratic nominee.

Under the circumstances, Graham badly needs Trump to support him to ensure he doesn’t face a primary challenge. That would be pretty easy for a normal Republican incumbent, but precisely because Graham was so critical of Trump in the past, he needs to go above and beyond to demonstrate his current loyalty to the president who — whatever his problems nationally — remains very popular in South Carolina.

Being openly anti-Trump would be devastating to the political career of any South Carolina Republican. There’s absolutely no need to posit any kind of “compromise” other than basic political survival instincts to explain Graham’s behavior.