An embattled Donald Trump enters one of the most consequential weeks of his presidency on defense, reeling from self-inflicted wounds, political setbacks and a surprise hospital visit the White House is struggling to explain.
This week will keep the focus on the president as nine administration witnesses head to Capitol Hill to testify in the House impeachment inquiry. Several told lawmakers behind closed doors they understood Trump ordered military aid to Ukraine frozen until its new president agreed to publicly state he would investigate U.S. Democrats.
They will testify in televised hearings after a new ABC News/Ipsos poll found 70 percent of Americans believe Trump’s actions were wrong. The same survey also found a razor-thin majority, 51 percent, want the president impeached and removed from office.
Much of the testimony this week is expected to mirror last week’s by being less than flattering for the president, but a senior Trump campaign official shrugged it off.
“Why would this week be any more consequential than any other week?” the official said. “I don’t see how these hearings change very much at all.”
Of the three administration officials who testified before the House Intelligence Committee last week, one Democratic strategist said he is “not convinced it moved the needle much when it comes to public opinion.”
“Many Republicans are so dug in when it comes to Trump, I honestly have no idea what it would take to turn on the guy,” said Jim Manley, who was an adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I can only assume that for the next round of hearings, House Republicans are going to try and drive a much more circuslike atmosphere than the first one in order to muddy up the whole process,” he added. “The smart ones know that they took some hits and will make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Saturday night special
Meantime, as Washington speculated Saturday about Trump’s unscheduled visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a major political blow landed on the president’s chin that night around 10 p.m. That’s when The Associated Press called Louisiana’s governor’s runoff for Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards.
Trump had traveled to the Pelican State three times this fall to stump for the GOP candidate, businessman Eddie Rispone. Those forays — which included full-throated presidential endorsements during rallies in Lake Charles, Monroe and Bossier City — gave the president ample ownership of Saturday’s outcome.
But Rispone fell short, dealing Trump a political blow heading into the heart of the 2020 election cycle. He won Louisiana by 20 points in 2016, a fact he touted at his rallies there before getting to his endorsement of Rispone.
The Trump campaign official, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said the Louisiana race “was always going to be a hill to climb” because “John Bel Edwards is not like any of the 2020 Democratic [presidential] candidates.”
“He is a very conservative Democratic incumbent governor in a Southern state, who also had a high approval rating,” the campaign official said. “We saw in our internal numbers before the president went down there last week that Eddie Rispone was down 5 points. So the president knew what the stakes were.”
Still, Trump at his Bossier City rally on Nov. 14 urged Louisiana Republicans “to give me a big win please, OK?” That was after he headlined an election-eve rally in Kentucky this month for GOP Gov. Matt Bevin, who went on to lose reelection to Democrat Andy Beshear.
Let Trump be Trump
But don’t expect the Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial losses to bring a major strategy change from the Trump-Pence reelection organization.
“Donald Trump is Donald Trump,” the campaign official said. “If there was a problem with the president’s coattails, all the other Republican candidates in statewide elections wouldn’t have won. … Our candidates still want to stand on that stage and be embraced by the president of the United States.”
Still, GOP strategists and political observers have said for weeks that a Rispone loss might make some Republican incumbents and candidates nervous about running too close to Trump. Other insiders say they are unlikely to break with him on policy matters or his conduct because he remains so popular with his base.
As that dynamic plays out, senior GOP leaders have been quick to defend the president.
“What [Trump] said was he would be made to look bad whether he came into the state or not. Eddie Rispone made up about a 22-point advantage-disadvantage over the last month because of President Trump’s involvement,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana told “Fox News Sunday.”
“So Rispone was at about 27 [percent] in the primary, ended up at 49,” Scalise said, opting not to mention that Republicans combined for 52 percent of the vote in the October jungle primary. “So, clearly, President Trump’s involvement made a big difference in helping close that massive gap. And, look, the governor’s polling showed he was about 50 [percent] before President Trump first started to get involved. That forced a runoff.”
But as an early data point for Trump’s coattails in 2020 when the GOP will try to keep the White House, expand its Senate majority and take back the House, the Louisiana result raises questions about the Trump effect, according to some Republican insiders.
“President Trump’s whole brand is winning,” said Michael Steel, a onetime aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner and an adviser to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
“Losing anything, anywhere, particularly a statewide race in a red state, hurts that brand.”