Alabama defeat weakens and isolates Trump as his problems grow

Trump
President Trump, shown at the White House on Wednesday, told aides that Sen. Luther Strange (R., Ala.) was loyal but "low energy."

As he headed to Huntsville, Ala., in a last-ditch effort to lift the floundering Senate primary campaign of Sen. Luther Strange, President Trump was fuming - feeling dragged along by GOP senators who had pleaded with him to go and increasingly unenthusiastic about Strange, whom he described to aides as loyal but "low energy."

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 presidency, leaving him further weakened and isolated with few ways forward 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.

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 his 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: attempting to overwhelm with liveliness. But they acknowledged that Trump may not be enjoying the experience.

"I'm told he's unhappy," said veteran GOP 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."

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, stewed over their own fates, anxious that Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge, would become a national burden for the party because of the long list of incendiary comments he has made on race, religion, and sexuality.

Hushed talk of retirements dominated conversations on Capitol Hill, one day after Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) announced that he would not seek reelection in 2018, with Republican lawmakers wondering whether they could survive a GOP political storm that only seems to be growing.

Trump was defensive in his remarks about the race to reporters on Wednesday, a few hours after he deleted a series of pro-Strange tweets. He also characterized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), as a drag on Strange.

"I have to say, Luther came a long way from the time I endorsed him, and he ran a good race, but Roy ran a really great race," Trump said, adding that Moore's campaign used McConnell as a weapon against Strange.

The atmosphere of uncertainty and recriminations following the Alabama race prompted Republicans, even those close to Trump, to feel urgency to pass something - anything - that could somehow stabilize the party.

"If there was ever a time when Republicans feel pressure to perform, it's now," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. "If big things don't get done by Thanksgiving, there really won't be enough spin to say Republicans here have done anything but fail."