Congress

Trump admits he was a liability in 2018

New book states president deliberately hindered Minnesota Republican Erik Paulsen’s reelection

President Donald Trump might have more of a nuanced self-awareness of his political standing than he advertises, according to a behind-the-scenes moment captured by Tim Alberta for his new book "American Carnage." (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump still won’t publicly admit he was a significant factor in Republicans’ loss of the House in 2018. But a behind-the-scenes moment captured in a new book suggests he is more politically self-aware than he leads on.

We know that Trump doesn’t admit mistakes or commit sins. It’s not in his personality or good for his brand to acknowledge any weakness. But, according to Politico’s Tim Alberta, the president endorsed a vulnerable member of Congress in an intentional effort to weaken his candidacy.

“In one case, Trump endorsed as a means of punishment. Having heard that Minnesota congressman Erik Paulsen was distancing himself from the White House in the hope of holding his seat in the Twin Cities’ suburbs, the president stewed and asked that the political shop send a tweet of support for Paulsen — thereby sabotaging the moderate Republican’s efforts,” according to an excerpt in Alberta’s new book “American Carnage,” shared with Axios.

“When his aides demurred, Trump sent the tweet himself, issuing a ‘Strong Endorsement!’ of the congressman in a late-night post that left Paulsen fuming and his Democratic opponent giddy.”

That’s a stark contrast to last month, when the president talked to the Faith and Freedom Coalition and played up his role in helping Republicans in the midterm elections.

“Well, No. 1, in 2018, I didn’t run. I wasn’t running. I was helping people,” Trump explained. He went on to take credit for the successes of candidates across the country: “The governor of Ohio, he’s great; the governor of Georgia, he’s great; the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, he’s great; Oklahoma ... I mean, so many different places … like in Kentucky, Andy Barr.”

“The ones that we helped — the ones that I went to — won,” Trump concluded. “They won their races against very tough competition.”

For some reason, the president didn’t mention Minnesota in his speech to the faithful, and that might have been why he added the caveat that Republicans were successful in races where he went to campaign. But Trump’s involvement in Paulsen’s 3rd District race consisted of a single tweet and the congressman lost by a dozen points. If the president had done an event for him, Paulsen would probably have lost by a larger margin.

It’s true that Republicans won all of the races the president mentioned. But they were all in places Trump won in 2016, and all of the races were closer in 2018, which is evidence that the president’s standing had slipped.

Trump also didn’t even try (or was successfully deterred) to wade into less friendly territory where he was toxic. Twenty-two of 25 Republican members in districts Hillary Clinton carried lost reelection last cycle. By limiting his visits to friendly territory, the president was essentially padding his personal win-loss record. It’s like Alabama’s football team scheduling Mercer, Fresno State and Western Carolina.

The president and Republicans will continue to dismiss the 2018 results in the House as an inevitable occurrence, even though the party lost a net of 40 seats, which is seven seats more than the historical average. Instead, the GOP has focused on the Senate.

“But we held the Senate and picked up two seats, and nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to talk about it,” the president told the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “And what I did is I campaigned for senators, and we almost picked up another three. We came very close to big upsets.”

Republicans held the Senate in 2018 with help from a favorable map, not because of Trump’s trips and tweets. In fact, Republicans lost six states Trump carried in 2016 (Arizona, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and an incumbent in a Clinton state (Dean Heller in Nevada) while failing to win a Senate race in any state Clinton carried.

While Trump might have a more nuanced idea of his political standing than previously advertised, the bottom line is that he believes Republicans had a successful midterm election with his help. And that will lead the president to talk more about immigration and replicate his strategy from 2018 to 2020.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.