President Donald Trump on Friday cast doubt on Senate candidate Roy Moore’s chances of winning the general election in Alabama against a Democratic challenger, while heaping praise on Sen. Luther Strange during a rally in the state.
“Luther’s going to win easily and Roy is going to have a hard time winning,” Trump said in Huntsville. “Roy has a very good chance of not winning in the general election.”
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While adding that he “will be backing [Moore] if he wins,” Trump painted the incumbent as the clear favorite to carry the seat in a general election and to help him uphold his vow to “put America first” in Washington.
“Like all of you, Luther Strange knows the true strength of this country: It’s God, it’s family and it’s country,” Trump said.
Trump’s Friday night appearance followed weeks of pleas from senior Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for the president to campaign for Strange in the the primary runoff. A visit, they argued, would make a difference in a close race that many see as a proxy battle between establishment figures and GOP challengers. GOP officials have expressed fear that a victory by Moore, a former Alabama chief justice, could embolden primary challengers in 2018 races across the country.
Since announcing his support for Strange earlier this month, the president has repeatedly used social media to vouch for his credentials. Trump touted on Twitter earlier Friday that the senator had “gained mightily since my endorsement,” while cautioning that, even so, the race would be “very close.”
While Trump’s popularity has declined elsewhere, he remains popular in Alabama — particularly among the state’s conservative Republican primary voters. In holding a rally in Huntsville, a conservative bastion in the northern part of the state, Strange’s campaign is hoping to eat into Moore’s base. The former judge is hoping to perform strongly here.
But the president on Friday also repeatedly veered off script, continuing to mock North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and lamenting Sen. John McCain’s decision earlier in the day to vote against the latest congressional push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Ripping into Kim, whom he called “Little Rocket Man,” for his continued expansion of the nation’s weapons testing, Trump vowed to “handle” the situation in the Korean Peninsula, something he charged that his Democratic predecessors had neglected to do.
“We can’t have madmen out there shooting rockets all over the place, and by the way, Rocket Man should’ve been handled a long time ago,” Trump said.
He added: “He should’ve been handled a long time ago by Clinton — I won’t mention the Republicans — by Obama. … This shouldn’t be handled now, but I’m going to handle it because we have to handle it.”
The president also called McCain’s announced opposition to the Graham-Cassidy health care bill “terrible,” noting that during McCain’s failed 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama, the Arizona Republican came out strongly against the plan for health care expansion.
“That was a totally unexpected thing,” Trump said of McCain’s decision on Friday. “You look at his campaign, his last campaign, it was all about repeal and replace.”
The president lauded Strange for his commitment to repealing and replacing Obamacare in the Senate, vowing that together his administration and GOP lawmakers would be able to deliver on their longstanding promise to overturn President Obama’s landmark health care law.
Trump’s support of Strange stands in contrast to several of his high-profile supporters, including current and past members of his administration, who have come out in favor of Moore over Strange, creating a notable schism between the president and some of his most loyal backers in one of the Senate’s most hotly contested races.
Steve Bannon, the former top Trump strategist-turned-Breitbart News executive chairman, has used the outlet’s influence in the right-wing-media sphere to wage war on Strange, while Ben Carson, Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development, announced his support for Moore just hours before the president was to take the stage in Alabama to stump for Strange.
Meanwhile, Sarah Palin — the former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee, and an early supporter of Trump during the 2016 campaign — and former presidential aide Sebastian Gorka slammed Strange for his perceived ties to the GOP establishment during a pro-Moore rally in Montgomery, Alabama, on Thursday night.
“Make no mistake, Big Luther is McConnell’s guy,” Palin said Thursday in Montgomery, before Moore joined her and Gorka onstage.
Casting Strange as an extension of the “swamp” that Trump campaigned against in 2016, Palin and Gorka characterized primary runoff as a national rehashing of the presidential race the year prior.
Strange has come under fire for his perceived ties to Republican congressional leadership, having gained millions in support from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnell.
Trump seemed to address the criticism head-on during his Friday rally appearance.
“He’s not a friend of Mitch McConnell. He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell, until just recently,” Trump said of Strange. “And I don’t say that badly about Mitch at all.”
The topic became a central part of a Thursday night debate between the two candidates, in which Moore repeatedly linked Strange to McConnell, who he says has undercut Trump’s legislative plans and manipulated his staffing decisions in the White House.
McConnell, Moore said, “will not support [Trump’s] agenda in the future.” And by proxy, neither would Strange, Moore implied.
Cristiano Lima reporting from Washington. Alex Isenstadt reporting from Huntsville, Alabama.