‘You’ve got to go’: How the GOP persuaded Trump to campaign in Alabama – Washington Post
The sales job began early in the summer. On a Monday night in July at the White House, GOP senators pressed Trump and Pence on Alabama while they gathered over dinner of lemon agnolotti and grilled rib-eye.
Following downbeat talk about the prospect of the party’s health-care legislation and hearing colorful stories from Trump about his time in Paris, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) implored Trump to make Strange’s victory a priority.
“I told him, ‘Luther has voted with you on a lot of things, and that matters if you’re president — and I’ve seen quite a few presidents,’ ” Shelby recalled. “We got into that and how the primary was important — very, very important.”
Strange, a former corporate lobbyist and state attorney general, was appointed to the Senate in February by then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R), taking the seat held for two decades by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had been a firebrand on Capitol Hill.
Strange has been dogged by his link to Bentley, who resigned in April amid a sprawling ethics and sex scandal that ended with him pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to covering up an alleged affair with his former aide.
Experts on Alabama politics in Trump’s administration were mostly sidelined in the president’s discussions about how to handle the primary campaign there. Sessions, who as attorney general is not supposed to engage in political talks, was not consulted. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn, who previously served as Sessions’ chief of staff in the Senate, supported Strange but was not central to Trump’s decision-making, according to Republicans involved in the talks.
For Trump, the decision to back Strange last month and to head there this week was as much about personal motivations as party pressure. He has a romantic view of Alabama — where he drew some of his biggest and most enthusiastic crowds of the campaign — and a rapport with Strange has been a constant since the two men began talking months ago.
Trump, who sometimes talks about staffing the government like running a television show, sees the hulking, 6-foot-9 senator as out of central casting. The president likes that Strange “can fill a room, literally and figuratively,” one White House official said, and admiringly calls him “Big Luther.” Their phone calls sometimes stretch for more than an hour.
More significantly, Trump sees Strange as one of his most dependable votes on Capitol Hill. Strange has told the president that “the Trump agenda is Alabama’s agenda” and has pledged his unconditional support, White House officials said. During this summer’s health-care debate, for instance, Strange was one of the few Republican senators to vow to back the GOP bill without seeking anything in exchange.
“We have laughed about it,” Strange said. “He has told me, ‘You’re one of the few guys I’m dealing with here who hasn’t asked me for something, and I appreciate that.’ I don’t want tickets to the Easter Egg Roll.”
Trump considered his endorsement largely as a binary choice between Strange and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), whose past comments criticizing Trump drew the president’s ire. It was unclear whether Trump fully grasped the potential of Moore as a third option, according to people familiar with the president’s discussions. It was Moore who went on to win the first round of voting last month.
Moore claimed in a recent interview that Trump has been manipulated about the dynamics in the race by McConnell and other establishment Republicans.
“Trump is being misled,” Moore said.
Regardless, Trump has had a comfort with Strange that persists. In early August, ahead of the primary, Strange said that the president told him: “Look, you and I have something in common. We’re both new to Washington. You have a background of getting things done, so I’m going to support you.”
Strange said he replied, “A tweet would be a good start.”
Trump did just that hours later, tweeting the night of Aug. 8.
It was an endorsement that caught McConnell and other senior Republicans unaware and, momentarily, left them satisfied.
Michael Scherer contributed to this report.