PALM BEACH, Florida — Sen. Lindsey Graham delivered a rousing speech behind closed doors at Mar-a-Lago on Friday night, joking about the prospect of President Donald Trump opening a hotel in Jerusalem and asking the crowd whether they’d like to see former Rep. Trey Gowdy on the Supreme Court.
With Trump looking on, Graham lavished the president with praise, ticking off a list of his accomplishments, including the booming economy, the elimination of Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
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“There will be a Trump hotel there in 10 years,” Graham said, according to three people present for his remarks. Two of the people stressed that the comment was clearly a joke, and the crowd laughed in response.
The senator also gave a shout-out to Gowdy, who represented Graham’s state of South Carolina in the House until earlier this year. When Graham jokingly asked the crowd whether they wanted to see Gowdy on the Supreme Court, the guests applauded. Gowdy, the former House Oversight Committee chairman, attended the event and was seen mingling with the president.
Graham recounted how his relationship with Trump went from rocky to warm. “We found a lot in common. I like him and he likes him,” Graham said, one of the people who attended said. But Graham did not mention Trump’s repeated criticism of his longtime friend, the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Graham was the keynote speaker at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner, a fundraiser for the Palm Beach County Republican Party. Graham’s appearance at the event was announced in February.
When asked to comment on the speech, Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, told POLITICO that the senator “speaks off the cuff.” Asked why Graham didn’t defend McCain to the audience after Trump’s attacks on him, Bishop noted that Graham talked about the matter on Monday and Tuesday in South Carolina.
None of the speakers at the event directly addressed Friday’s long-awaited news that special counsel Robert Mueller had completed his investigation and submitted a report to the Justice Department, according to people who attended.
“Nobody mentioned anything, other than all of us saw our phones and knew the report dropped,” one of the attendees said.
The attendee said Graham’s speech, which was peppered with jokes, easily eclipsed last year’s keynote speech from Sarah Palin.
“She decided she was making a policy speech,” the person said. “It was terrible.”
In past years, the event has been open to the press. But reporters were barred from entering this year. When Palm Beach County Republican Party Chairman Michael Barnett said at the start of the dinner that there were no press at the event, guests applauded.
Among the attendees were Donald Trump Jr. and girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, Florida Lt. Gov Jeanette Núñez, Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), Republican National Committee co-chair Tommy Hicks, Jr. and conservative activist James O’Keefe. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi was the emcee.
The attendees were served a multi-course meal. The event’s dessert plate — chocolate mousse — featured a piece of white chocolate covered with a picture of Abraham Lincoln wearing a “Keep America Great” hat. Tickets for the fundraiser started at $375, with sponsorship packages going as high as $25,000.
Aides had initially suggested that the president would not attend, saying he planned to spend the night having dinner with his family. But Trump apparently couldn’t resist, making the short trek to the nearby gold-trimmed ballroom where the event was being held after dining with First Lady Melania Trump and his son.
The president took the stage, introducing Graham and joking, “If Lindsey’s speaking, I want to come down here for two reasons. No. 1: he’s a great speaker. And No. 2, I know if I’m here, he’s not going to say anything bad about me,” according to a video of his remarks obtained by POLITICO.
Graham spoke for about 30 minutes, according to another person who attended the event. Trump remained in the room for the senator’s remarks, and left soon after.
The senator repeatedly tossed out what one of the attendees called “red meat” for the conservative crowd, calling for an investigation into Hillary Clinton and the circumstances surrounding the creation of a largely unverified dossier about Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. He also complained about alleged Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuse, an issue that he is investigating as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
At the mention of Clinton, the crowd began chanting, “Lock her up!” But Graham offered a different view. “Don’t lock her up! We want her to run again,” he said, prompting roaring laughter from the attendees.
He also touched on immigration. “Until Trump got elected, I never heard one Democrat say we don’t need a wall,” Graham said. He then poked fun of the names he has been called over his immigration stances, mentioning “Lindsey Grahamesty” and “Lindsey Lopez.”
Graham’s speech was “pretty typical Lindsey,” said one of the people who attended.