WASHINGTON — Little Marco. Lyin’ Ted. Lightweight Lindsey Graham.
This is how Donald Trump referred to three of his opponents for the Republican presidential nomination. Now the trio, more traditionally known as Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham, are enjoying a very different kind of treatment from Trump: the charm offensive.
Rubio scored a seat on Air Force One Friday, Graham shared a private lunch with the president Tuesday, and Cruz, along with his family, accepted an invitation to dine with Trump at the White House on Wednesday evening.
As the Trump White House turns toward a legislative agenda, and the reality sinks in that any three Republican senators stand a good chance of holding up his agenda in the closely divided chamber, the famously pugnacious president is starting to understand he needs allies wherever he can find them. And the senators face a reality, too: Their supporters backed Trump, and their pet projects would benefit from a White House blessing.
The early days of the Trump administration show that the new president isn’t a policy wonk — but he has shown an uncanny ability to forge relationships with a wide array of people. It sets him apart from Barack Obama, who viewed courting members of Congress as a chore.
Trump’s administration is now aiming for a more substantive record that requires congressional approval, making it more important that he impose his unique relationship-building skills on Washington.
The bad news for Trump is that some of very senators he needs to forge ties with are the same people he insulted during the presidential campaign, mocking their ambition, their life’s work, and sometimes even their families or their right to stand on a stage with him.
During the campaign, Trump labeled Graham “a lightweight” and an “idiot” and even gave out the senator’s private cellphone number during a July 2015 rally in South Carolina.
That prompted Graham to make a dramatic video of himself destroying his flip-style cellphone using a butcher knife, a blender, a golf club, lighter fluid, a wooden sword, and a brick, and finally tossing the device from the top of a two story building.
“Senator Graham was pretty direct about” his irritation, said Christian Ferry, Graham’s former campaign manager.
Graham has repaid Trump by being a consistent critic, one who openly mulled voting against Trump’s nominee for secretary of state and said Trump allies who worked with Russia must “pay a price.”
Ferry said that Graham has long been willing to talk with the president. “That has gone unanswered; now President Trump is having a change of heart,” said Ferry. “He’s going to work with President Trump where he agrees with him.”
There’s clearly politics at play, too. Graham, whose name may well be on the ballot with Trump’s in 2020, hails from South Carolina, where Republican voters have shown a strong affinity for Trump, both in the primary, where Graham could be vulnerable should Trump back an opponent, and in the general election.
Graham’s working lunch on Tuesday with the president seemed to go well. Shortly after 2 p.m. that day, Graham’s office issued a statement praising Trump’s interest in increasing military spending.
“President Trump is in deal-making mode, and I hope Congress is like-minded,” Graham said. “How good was the meeting? I gave him my new cellphone number.”
Trump is also taking a notably softer tone in public with former foes, including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who opposes his health care overhaul. “I feel sure that my friend @RandPaul will come along with the new and great health care program because he knows Obamacare is a disaster!” Trump wrote.
That’s a far cry from September 2015, when, during a presidential primary debate, Trump declared: “Rand Paul should not be on this stage.”
Trump’s battles with Cruz might not be quite so easy to repair — in part because Trump not only insulted the Texas senator but also mocked his wife, Heidi Cruz. As a candidate, Trump retweeted a photograph that unfavorably compared Heidi Cruz’s appearance to that of Trump’s wife, a former supermodel.
He also accused Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, of being part of the plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. There’s no known basis for the accusation, and Trump offered no proof.
Moreover, Cruz hasn’t had a reputation in the Senate as a relationship builder, though his allies say that’s changing.
“He’s playing a different role now,” said Rick Tyler, a former Cruz campaign spokesman. “There’s a lot they [Trump and Cruz] could accomplish together.”
Still, said Tyler, Cruz is “not going to make himself vulnerable particularly with Trump. Because you never know.”
Tyler said that Cruz met privately with Trump in spring of 2015, before the reality TV star decided to run for president, and it went quite smoothly. Though he was struck even then by what he characterized as Trump’s obsession with Rubio — one that played out on stage during the campaign, perhaps most notably when Trump ridiculed Rubio for perspiring a lot under pressure.
“I have never seen any human being sweat like that,” Trump said of the Florida senator in 2015
But that is now just history, as Rubio’s ride on Air Force One Friday shows.
Rubio’s office declined to discuss the flight. He and his wife also dined with Trump last month — which prompted the president to call on Venezuela to free a political prisoner, one of Rubio’s favored causes.
The recent love from the White House has hardly transformed Rubio into a Trump surrogate. He pointedly declined to defend Trump over the weekend after the president made unsubstantiated claims that Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower during the presidential campaign.
“I’m not sure what it is he is talking about,” Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “If it’s true, obviously we’re going to find out very quickly. And if it isn’t, then obviously he’ll have to explain what he meant by it.”
The White House declined to speak at length about the recent rounds of diplomacy. “Since the night he won the election, the president has demonstrated a willingness to meet and work with anyone, anytime, anywhere to make America great again,” said Michael Short, a White House spokesman. “That includes those who may not have supported him at times or at all.”
There’s only so far a feel-good meeting with the president in the Oval Office can go in terms of building new allies.
Trump is learning this lesson via Ohio Governor John Kasich, another former political foe who had a well publicized sit-down in at the White House last month.
Kasich used the face time with Trump to discuss health care reform and pitched protecting states like Ohio that had extended the Medicare rolls to insure more people. The governor came away from the meeting in good spirits.
But when the Trump-backed health law was unveiled this week, Kasich’s ideas were not included. Kasich wasted little time voicing his criticism of it, saying the GOP plan is “counterproductive.”