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Trump already distancing himself from Strange in Alabama race

President Donald Trump began distancing himself from a Luther Strange loss before ballots were even cast, telling conservative activists Monday night the candidate he’s backing in Alabama’s GOP Senate primary was likely to lose — and suggesting he’d done everything he could do given the circumstances.

Trump told conservative activists who visited the White House for dinner on Monday night that he’d underestimated the political power of Roy Moore, the firebrand populist and former judge who’s supported by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, according to three people who were there.

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Attendees said the president asked questions that suggested he remained hesitant about making his endorsement just hours before the polls opened.

“He went around the room and wanted to know what everyone thought,” said American Conservative Union head Matt Schlapp, who was among the attendees. The group told Trump they believed Moore would win.

“He was trying to figure out if there was going to be damage from this,” one attendee said.

The loss would be Trump’s first congressional defeat since taking office, and sends a signal that deep-red Republicans won’t necessarily follow his lead – a notion he hates.

The vexing state of the race has left Trump, who cares about winning and being associated with winners, frustrated and sometimes visibly annoyed, according to four White House officials and people familiar with the president’s thinking.

Trump has talked about the race frequently since returning from a rally he held for Strange in Alabama last Friday, one person close to him said, and seemed increasingly resigned to a loss. Several people close to him said they expect him to blame a loss on others – particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – and to embrace Moore heading into the special election.

He has convened meetings in the Oval Office and called pollsters, consultants and advisers on speakerphone to talk about the race. The president has complained about Bannon’s aggressive moves on Moore’s behalf, as well as about the political advice he got from aides inside the White House, according to people who have spoken with him.

He has told White House aides and advisers that his base supports Moore and that Strange, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, doesn’t have a lot of energy or charisma when he is campaigning or on television.

Trump has complained before and after sending tweets about “Big Luther” and grumbled that he will be associated with a loss in Alabama – a state where “they love me,” as one White House official described the president’s comments.

A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some Trump aides say the endorsement of Strange, who has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment, was the right thing to do – even if Strange fails to make it through to the runoff.

“He feels that Sen. Strange has been a reliable vote for the Trump agenda and has asked for very little in return,” said presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway. “It sends a very strong message to sitting Republican senators that this president will be there for you.”

Trump was encouraged to pick Strange before the August primary by son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner as well as other aides, White House officials said. He was never going to endorse Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, who has at times opposed Trump’s agenda, and knew little about Moore, officials said.

“He seemed like he didn’t know the state of play and what was going on,” said one person who discussed the race with Trump last week. “I don’t think he has been given good advice.”

“He didn’t know exactly where the numbers stood or what was happening on the ground,” this person added.

Sometimes, the president would show intense interest in the race before appearing to forget about it for several days, advisers said. With Strange dragging in the polls and some of Trump’s backers going with Moore, the president waffled on a public rally for several weeks, these advisers said.

The president agreed to go to Alabama after Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker and Ward Baker, a political strategist close to Corker, told Trump he needed to go to Alabama two weeks ago. But he told advisers and aides later that he didn’t want to go to Alabama—and wound up giving a speech marked by inflammatory comments about NFL players who have silently protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.

Trump also praised Strange onstage, but his monologue at times made clear private concerns he’d expressed to his staff, White House officials said. “Maybe I made a mistake,” Trump told the crowd.

“He essentially thinks, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” one adviser said.

Steve Bannon is pictured. | AP Photo

Bannon’s aggressive moves and television appearances in the race on Moore’s behalf, along with his appearance at a rally backing Moore on Monday, have especially upset Trump, who was also annoyed that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and his former White House aide Sebastian Gorka have rallied for Moore.

How much a Strange loss would damage Trump remains unclear. Other presidents have endorsed losers in political primaries – for example, President Barack Obama unsuccessfully endorsed Hawaii’s Neil Abercrombie and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter in primaries.

“It might just be a one-day dent with the news cycles these days,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “You have Puerto Rico, North Korea, everything else going on. I don’t think it makes a huge impact.”

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Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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