Democrats have run up the score in the House of Representatives and the political world has turned its focus to ominous signs for the president’s reelection hopes. In response, Trump has hit out on Twitter, in impromptu comments to reporters, and in a Sunday TV interview.
Behind the scenes, it’s no better.
“The issue was not election night. But 10 days later, we are still seeing the fallout and losing races,” said one source familiar with the president’s thinking.
Other sources who spoke with The Hill described a similar atmosphere.
“Right after the election, we felt a sense of relief that the impact of the blue wave had not been so great,” said one GOP operative with ties to the White House. “But there has been a rising tide of Democrats flipping Republican seats over the past week-and-a-half, and that has really concerned Republicans and raised eyebrows.”
People close to the administration recall, somewhat wistfully, the buoyant mood in the White House on election night, as early returns seemed to point toward a respectable showing for the GOP.
Trump’s spirits had already been lifted by the adoring crowds that had greeted him during an intense bout of campaigning in the run-up to Election Day.
On election night, the initial sense was that he had been vindicated — and not just in Senate contests.
The projection that Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) had won his competitive reelection race was met with particular pleasure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The president had campaigned for Barr in mid-October.
But the sweetness of moments like that have curdled as Democratic gains keep ticking up. And the president seems to be taking it personally.
“All in all, it’s not bad. We are now at 37, going on 40,” the source familiar with Trump’s thinking said, referring to total seat losses for the House GOP. But “the expectation was, for a guy who spent as much time and effort, that it would have been better.”
The president’s souring mood has been evident on Twitter, where initial proclamations of victory have given way to familiar complaints about unfair treatment by the media.
“People are not being told that the Republican Party is on track to pick up two seats in the U.S. Senate, and epic victory: 53 to 47,” he tweeted on Friday. “The Fake News Media only wants to speak of the House, where the Midterm results were better than other sitting Presidents.”
In a “Fox News Sunday” interview with Chris Wallace, Trump insisted that his mood was not dark, as Wallace posited, but “very light.”
But his later answers belied that claim. He sought credit for some victories while arguing that GOP defeats showed only that Republican candidates could not match his appeal to voters.
“I have people that won’t vote unless I’m on the ballot, okay? And I wasn’t on the ballot,” Trump told Wallace.
In and around the White House, there is speculation about how the president’s political team might change.
Political director Bill Stepien, who is held in broadly high regard even in the faction-riven White House, has been seen as likely to join the president’s reelection campaign — though some question where he would fit into a chain of command that already has a campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
Renewed speculation over chief of staff John Kelly’s future also impacts the picture.
Kelly is seen, by allies and detractors alike, as more concerned with policy and managerial order than with the finer points of electoral politics.
Were he to be replaced by a more political figure — such as Nick Ayers, currently chief of staff to Vice President Pence — that would likely have ripple effects through the in-house team.
Trump fueled the Kelly gossip during his “Fox News Sunday” interview when he pointedly declined to repeat his prior pledge that his chief of staff would remain in place until 2020.
Trump noted of Kelly, “There are a couple of things where it’s just not his strength. It’s not his fault, it’s not his strength.” Those comments could be seen as a reference to Kelly’s perceived lack of interest in campaign-style politics.
A brief but intense return to the trail could provide one salve for Trump’s spirits, however.
On Nov. 26, he will hold two rallies in Mississippi, where Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is seeking to hold off Democrat Mike Espy in a Senate runoff set for the next day.
Meanwhile, some Trump loyalists rationalize his mood as an understandable swing after the rigors of the campaign trail.
“The last couple of days, he looked tired. I think he is probably exhausted from the [pre-election] sprint,” said Barry Bennett on Friday. Bennett served as a senior advisor to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
But, Bennett insisted, there was no underlying reason to fear for Trump’s reelection hopes.
“Structurally, I just don’t see much there,” he said. “Of course I wish we’d kept the House, but that was historically improbable.”
There are warning signs for Trump, however, including the strong performance of Democratic senators in the Rust Belt states that made the difference between winning and losing in 2016.
Democratic senators in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio all won reelection comfortably. All four states were carried by Trump two years before.
Brad Blakeman, a member of the senior staff in President George W. Bush’s administration and a supporter of the current president, demurred when asked if those results were troubling.
“I don’t think it’s troubling. I think it’s concerning,” Blakeman said. “Any president up for reelection should be concerned with his support in battleground states. But there is some comfort that can be taken from the shellacking President Obama and President Clinton took, and yet they both won reelection handily.”
In the broader Republican world, however, there is concern not just at the bottom-line results but at exit polls that showed the party faring poorly with college educated voters, female voters and in the suburbs.
Some more establishment-friendly voices place the blame on Trump, contending that his fiery rhetoric on topics such as immigration and the caravan of migrants that originated in Central America, put off as many voters as it attracted.
“I think the immigration rhetoric lost us several seats in Hispanic districts, and it’s not going to get better in 2020,” lamented one GOP operative who worked on the midterms. “There is no district we lost here that we are going to win in 2020 — and it’s going to hurt recruiting, quite honestly.”
Independent experts agree that there are portents of trouble for Trump in the midterm results, even though they stress plenty of caveats.
“Midterms are not presidential elections, and they are not predictive,”cautioned Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“But the president’s standing is undeniably shaky and his deliberately divisive style is not allowing him to capitalize on a time of relative peace and prosperity.”
That’s the kind of verdict likely to stoke Trump’s ire to new heights.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.