Alabama defeat leaves Trump weakened, isolated amid mounting challenges
His agitation only worsened on the flight back last Friday. Trump bemoaned the headlines he expected to see once Strange was defeated — that he had stumbled and lost his grip on “my people,” as he calls his core voters. He also lamented the rally crowd’s tepid response to the 6-foot-9 incumbent he liked to call “Big Luther.”
“Trump was never fully behind Strange to begin with,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said Wednesday after Strange was trounced in Tuesday’s GOP primary in Alabama. “But the party coaxed and cajoled him to get on the Strange train, and he did.”
For Trump, the trip to Alabama marked the dispiriting start to one of the lowest and perhaps most damaging stretches of his already troubled presidency, leaving him further weakened and isolated with few ways out of the thicket of challenges he faces, according to a half dozen people close to him interviewed on Wednesday.
His political vitality within his party — counted upon by Republicans who fear primary challenges in next year’s midterm elections — suddenly stands in question, as neither his vocal campaigning nor millions of dollars from the Republican establishment could save Strange from defeat by insurgent challenger Roy Moore. Trump’s legislative agenda lies in tatters, as Senate Republicans failed again this week to rally around legislation that would gut former president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He is also increasingly under siege by members of both parties for his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, which has left Puerto Rico devastated and begging for help from Washington.
By Wednesday, the downtrodden president tried to start anew by unveiling a tax plan at an event in Indiana — a proposal immediately met with withering attacks from the left as a deficit-busting giveaway to the rich and from the right as not aggressive enough in slashing tax rates. The Drudge Report, influential among conservatives, dubbed it “more betrayal.”
Trump also waded back into the health-care debate, falsely stating that the Republican legislation was held up by a hospitalized senator.
“We have the votes for health care. We have one senator that’s in the hospital. He can’t vote because he’s in the hospital,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday — an apparent reference to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who turns 80 in December and has dealt with various health problems.
Cochran responded with a corrective tweet: “Thanks for the well-wishes. I’m not hospitalized, but am recuperating at home in Mississippi and look forward to returning to work soon.”
Trump’s loose, confident talk extended elsewhere on Wednesday. In Indiana, the president was full of bravado as he made his tax pitch — and if there was lingering frustration with Strange, he did not show it.
“These tax cuts are significant,” Trump said at the state fairgrounds. “There’s never been tax cuts like what we’re talking about.”
But Trump’s critics did not buy the president’s assurance and said the tax speech could not paper over his problems.
“In Alabama and with so many things, Trump has helped to light a fire he can’t control, and there’s no sign he knows how to get out of this situation,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who worked in George W. Bush’s White House. “It’s going to cause him to lash out more rather than less as he starts to feel like the walls are closing in.”
Several of Trump’s longtime friends and associates said he is doing what he always does in times of trouble: attempt to overwhelm with liveliness. But they acknowledged that Trump may not be enjoying the experience.
“I’m told he’s unhappy,” said veteran Republican consultant Roger Stone. “He’s surrounded by people who don’t understand politics and don’t understand why he won the presidency. Instead of sending a message in Alabama to get behind his policies, they sadly lost the opportunity.”
Said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, “The president will think about what happened in Alabama and remember everybody who told him to go all in. If you sent him polls from the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce or the Senate Leadership Fund, the next polls you send will go in his trash can.”