WASHINGTON DC — As a cold morning broke at the White House on Wednesday, questions mounted about who was to blame for the remarkable loss of Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.
Democrat Doug Jones’ upset victory in Alabama on Tuesday capped a tortured 10 months for President Donald Trump, whose forays into the race all seemed to backfire and which are now drawing concerns as a wider slate of 2018 midterm contests near.
Aides eyed Twitter anxiously for Trump to lash out, though by mid-morning his messages remained largely restrained. Even as he moderated his public remarks, however, finger pointing was in full swing behind the scenes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump’s onetime chief strategist Steve Bannon, and the White House’s own fledgling political office all appeared due for recrimination by the President and his allies.
Even as blame was being laid, however, Republicans outside the White House acknowledged that Trump’s own political toxicity and his insistence on forging his own path would remain stumbling blocks as the GOP works to retain control of Congress in next year’s elections.
“This is the worst political operation in my lifetime in a White House, Republican or Democrat,” said one Republican close to the White House. “It’s just a rudderless ship with no direction and no captain.”
“The President is ill-served because there’s nobody of substance or any leadership that can help him with these issues,” the Republican said.
Of course, those advisers are only effective if the President actually listens to them.
Viewing results on large flat screen televisions from his third-floor White House residence, Trump did not express immediate regret at backing Moore, an official said. Instead he issued a mild-mannered tweet shrugging off the defeat: “A win is a win,” he wrote Tuesday evening.
By the next day, he was in a more combative mood.
“The reason I originally endorsed Luther Strange (and his numbers went up mightily), is that I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the General Election,” he wrote on Twitter. “I was right! Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!”
Wake up call
That morning-after message captured little of Trump’s confidence going into Tuesday’s contest. Trump had been assured by Republican operatives, including Bannon, that Moore would win, and remembered well his own large margin of victory in the state last year. It was those assurances that led Trump to dive headfirst into the race, against the advice and example of fellow Republican leaders.
But hours after polls closed, he and his aides were alerted by the Republican National Committee that Moore was losing, a stunning development in a state Trump won by almost 30 points.
“This should be a wake up call,” one Republican official in close touch with the White House said.
Another source close to the White House called Tuesday’s result “devastating for the President.”
“This is an earthquake,” the source said.
How precisely the White House will recover from the seismic activity remains to be seen. Trump hopes to move swiftly onward, scheduling an address from the White House on Wednesday as a closing argument in his push for major tax cuts.
But inside the West Wing and among Republican operatives, the finger pointing was rampant. Privately, some of Trump’s advisers cast blame on his White House political director Bill Stepien, already under fire for losses last month in New Jersey and Virginia. Stepien unsuccessfully advised Trump against backing Moore — a sign, his detractors say, of his middling influence.
“No leadership,” one source said of the White House’s political office. “He doesn’t have any juice.”
Others looked toward Bannon, who was ousted from his official role as Trump’s strategist by chief of staff John Kelly but who continues to hold sway through frequent conversations with the President.
“This guy does not belong on the national stage. He looks like some disheveled drunk that wandered on to the national stage,” said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican. “He does not represent anything that I stand for. I consider myself a conservative Republican. I consider myself an Irish Catholic, and he sort of parades himself out there with his weird alt-right views that he has and to me it’s demeaning the whole government and political process.”
Even as those close to Trump questioned on Tuesday whether he would continue following Bannon’s example, allies of the Breitbart executive were casting blame elsewhere.
“Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment got their wish and delivered the Yellowhammer State into the hands of a liberal Democrat,” said Andy Surabian, senior adviser to the Great America Alliance, an outside political group aligned with Bannon.
For a President still working to jumpstart his administration and fulfill campaign promises, Trump played an outsized role in Alabama’s special election — a reflection, aides say, of his appetite for raw politics even as he sets to work governing.
But as the President looks back over the past year, some people close to him say he’s come to regard the Alabama contest as an ill-fated exercise.
The race was set off by Trump’s own decision to install then-Sen. Jeff Sessions as his attorney general — a choice he has come to regret after Sessions proved unable to shield him from investigations into Russian election meddling.
Trump originally backed Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama’s Republican primary, convinced by some of his advisers and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the incumbent Republican had the best chance of winning the seat.
But after campaigning alongside Strange ahead of the primary, Trump expressed misgivings. He felt the candidate was “low-energy,” according to people close to him. And he fretted that his backing of Strange over Moore — a bombastic anti-establishment candidate — would make him appear cowed to the Republican machine he’d openly rebuffed during his own campaign.
When Strange lost to Moore at the end of September, Trump was infuriated at having taken his team’s advice. Worried his support for Strange risked alienating his Republican base, Trump erased all evidence that he’d endorsed the senator at all, including on Twitter.
And he enthusiastically threw his support behind Moore, whose hard-right stances on social issues made him a draw for conservatives.
The race seemed like a lock — until allegations surfaced in mid-November that Moore pursued teenaged girls for romantic and sexual relationships. Jetting between Asian capitals on a foreign trip, Trump claimed ignorance of the facts in the case, insisting he was too busy with his Pacific nation counterparts to form an opinion.
The accusations against Moore swelled, overtaking Trump’s attempts at Asian diplomacy and requiring him to respond. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that “if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside,” a response that largely echoed that of most Republicans in Washington.
But when Trump returned to the White House, it was clear that he and his party’s leaders — led by McConnell — had differing approaches to the race. McConnell’s office prepared a memo for Trump and his political team spelling out options, including potential paths to prevent the election from occurring.
Trump’s aides rejected the options as unfeasible. By then, Trump had begun casting doubts on Moore’s accusers. By the second week of December, Trump had offered Moore his full backing, and held a campaign rally just over the state line in Florida that was largely viewed as a de facto rally for the candidate.
The series of events fed into a larger national reckoning with sexual misconduct that toppled the careers of prominent men in Hollywood, media, and politics and they caused a re-examination of accusations previously levied against Trump. According to people who have spoken to him, Trump came to view Moore as victimized within that environment — and, as someone accused of sexual impropriety himself, identified with him.
Through it all, Trump received conflicting advice from his disparate group of advisers. Daughter Ivanka Trump spoke out harshly against Moore, saying there was a “there’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children.”
Bannon, meanwhile, told Trump that if Moore lost, Democrats would feel emboldened to go after the President on his own sexual harassment issues, according to a source familiar with their conversations.
Ultimately, it was that message which resonated with Trump, for whom the memory remains fresh of Republicans abandoning his campaign after his remarks about sexual assault emerged on an “Access Hollywood” videotape.
Even as late as Tuesday evening, Trump’s mind remained focused on the notion of loyalty, even facing a storm of controversy.
As voters were still heading to the polls late this afternoon, Trump was hosting a holiday party for some of his most ardent campaign supporters, including pastor Jerry Falwell, actor Scott Baio and the conservative duo Diamond and Silk.
Gathered on the State Floor of the White House, Trump was in his element, according to an attendee, touting the economy and again lambasting “fake news.”
Belying few concerns about the race, he spoke from the bottom of the grand staircase for several minutes as first lady Melania Trump stood by his side.
Recounting the trajectory of his own campaign, Trump made a remark that people close to him say informed his own decision to stick by Roy Moore, despite the allegations against him.
“Most people fold when there’s controversy,” Trump told his guests. “You didn’t.”