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Sen. Lindsey Graham told "Axios on HBO" that Donald Trump has a "dark side" but he tries to "harness the magic" because he succeeded where Republican candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney failed.

Why it matters: The South Carolina Republican gyrates between support and criticism of the former president, even after Trump harshly criticized McCain — Graham's longtime friend — and helped spark the Capitol insurrection.

  • "What I'm tryin' to do is just harness the magic," Graham told Axios' Jonathan Swan. "To me, Donald Trump is sort of a cross between Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan and P.T. Barnum."
  • "He could make the Republican Party something that nobody else I know can make it. He can make it bigger. He can make it stronger. He can make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it," Graham said.

The big picture: Graham won reelection in November in one of the most expensive political races in American history. That helps explain his embrace of Trump, wildly popular with the Republican base, but also confounds those who wonder why he sticks with him.

  • In 2016, when they were competing for the GOP presidential nomination, Graham questioned Trump's mental fitness.
  • After Trump beat Hillary Rodham Clinton, Graham embraced the new president, despite him criticizing his former sidekick McCain for becoming a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
  • The day after the Capitol siege, Graham blamed Trump for fueling the attack and declared, "enough is enough."
  • Now, Graham says he is reengaging purposefully.

What they're saying: "Donald Trump was my friend before the riot. And I'm trying to keep a relationship with him after the riot. I still consider him a friend. What happened was a dark day in American history, and we're going to move forward."

  • "I want us to continue the policies that I think will make America strong. I believe the best way for the Republican Party to do that is with Trump, not without Trump."
  • "Mitt Romney didn't do it. John McCain didn't do it. There's something about Trump. There's a dark side and there's some magic there."

Flashback: When Swan noted Trump is not showing remorse for his election challenge and still arguing he won in a landslide, Graham invoked McCain.

  • "I tell (Trump) every day that he wants to listen that I think the main reason he probably lost in Arizona is beatin' on the dead guy called John McCain," the senator said.

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.