In Alabama to boost Sen. Luther Strange, Trump detours to insult Kim Jong Un and defend himself

President Trump traveled to Alabama on Friday night to help out a Republican senator threatened by an insurgent GOP challenger. He departed having detailed a litany of woes of a president under siege.

The president continued his brash public feud with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, escalating the insults he has leveled at Kim this week but insisting, without details, that he would protect the American people from Kim’s wrath.

“Little Rocket Man,” Trump dismissively termed Kim.

Trump recounted the 2016 presidential contest as if it ended last week rather than more than 10 months ago, denying any Russian involvement in his victory. The potential cooperation between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government being investigated by a special counsel and House and Senate committees are simply a hoax, he said.

“No, Russia did not help me,” he said.

He expressed surprise at Sen. John McCain’s announcement that he would vote against the GOP’s Obamacare repeal plan — although the Arizona Republican voted against the last one — but Trump insisted that eventually he would make good on that campaign promise to replace his predecessor’s signature achievement.

“It’s a little tougher without McCain’s vote, but we’re going to go back,” he said, although only eight days remain before the measure can no longer be passed in the Senate by a simple majority vote.

As for Sen. Luther Strange, the man Trump came to Huntsville to pull over the finish line in Tuesday’s special election? Trump repeatedly told his audience that Strange’s effort had been fading until Trump endorsed him. He asserted four times that Strange did not kowtow to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Republican leaders whose fundraising committees have poured millions into Strange’s effort. And he suggested he would not be pleased if Strange lost.

“Again, I’m taking a big risk,” Trump said. “If Luther doesn’t make it, they’re going to go after me, Luther.”

Trump’s speech closed a whirlwind week that saw Trump battle with North Korea from the podium of the United Nations and witness the path to success of his repeal-and-replace effort narrow with McCain’s pledged “no” vote. It was not in Trump’s plan to end the week simply.

He unleashed a sprawling 85-minute cacophony of topics with what often seemed to be a chilly anger — covering not only North Korea, Russia, healthcare and the Senate race, but also recent natural disasters, allegations that Hillary Clinton would have rounded up guns, the importance of loyalty, the national anthem protests by some NFL players, the league’s concern about concussions and the Senate filibuster rule. Often, the subject was himself.

“I feel like I’m from Alabama, frankly,” Trump said. “Isn’t it a little weird when a guy, who lives on Fifth Avenue in the most beautiful apartment you’ve ever seen, comes to Alabama and Alabama loves that guy? Crazy.”

The answer, he said, was shared values: “Those are the values that made this country. Those are the values that made this country great …. I understand those values.”

Repeatedly, the president used profanity to get his point across, but it was his remarks about the North Korean leader, who has been exchanging insults with Trump while his aides threaten a nuclear test in the Pacific, that were the most surprising of the night. Trump referred to Kim as “Rocket Man” first in a tweet Sunday and then Tuesday at the U.N., a reference that U.S. officials had warned against.

“We can’t have madmen out there shooting rockets all over the place,” Trump said in Huntsville. “And by the way, Rocket Man should have been handled a long time ago. He should have been handled a long time ago by Clinton — I won’t mention the Republicans — by Obama…. This should have been handled eight years ago and four years ago, and honestly, and 15 years ago and 20 years ago and 35 years ago. This shouldn’t be handled now, but I’m going to handle it because we have to handle it.”

Kim assumed power in North Korea in 2011 after the death of his father.

“Little Rocket Man, we’re going to do it because we really have no choice,” Trump went on, detailing the “calamity” that would occur with a nuclear test over the Pacific.

“Maybe something gets worked out and maybe it doesn’t,” he added. “But I can tell you one thing: You are protected, OK? You are protected. Nobody’s going to mess with our people. Nobody is going to play games. Nobody is going to put our people in that kind of danger.”

The Russia investigation may have been on Trump’s mind because of repeated developments this week centered on his onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort. The president did not mention Manafort on Friday, nor the investigators.

Trump turned to the subject after describing at length his “awe-inspiring” electoral victory.

“I call it the Russian hoax, one of the great hoaxes,” he said, then interrupted himself: “Actually, that’s the thing. I was thinking about it that’s the thing that the Democrats did best. They lost the election and they didn’t know what happened, and they needed an excuse, so they said Russia.

“Honestly, it’s the thing they did best. They did a rotten job of running, but to convince people of this hoax, that was probably the thing they did best.”

Then, with some flair, he looked over the crowd and demanded: “Are there any Russians in the audience? I don’t see too many Russians. I didn’t see too many Russians in Pennsylvania” — the site of one of his surprise wins last November.

The visit to Alabama was calculated to transfer to Strange some of the popularity Trump has enjoyed in the state — and to tamp down divisions within the Republican Party that threaten to complicate the 2018 party primaries. The 6-foot-9 Strange, a former state attorney general, was appointed to the seat vacated this year by Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

“I am supporting ‘Big’ Luther Strange because he was so loyal & helpful to me!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.

“Will be in Alabama tonight. Luther Strange has gained mightily since my endorsement, but will be very close. He loves Alabama, and so do I!” he tweeted Friday morning.

But the president’s support for Strange is part of an odd dynamic. Supporting Strange are Trump, McConnell and the GOP establishment in Washington. They are trying to defeat former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, the challenger who stylistically resembles Trump himself. But Trump allies have sided with Moore.

As Trump was preparing to fly to Alabama on Friday evening, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson released a statement of support for Moore, not the president’s pick.

Carson invoked the president’s own slogan in explaining his support.

“He is truly someone who reflects the Judeo-Christian values that were so important to the establishment of our country,” he said. “It is these values that we must return to in order to make America great again.”

Former White House senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, an early Trump supporter, also endorsed Moore. Bannon, who has returned to heading the Breitbart News website, and others are interested in running challengers against Republican incumbents they deem disloyal to Trump’s original positioning as president. That could cause chaos, and rapidly escalate the cost, of GOP primaries next year, a time when establishment leaders would rather concentrate on picking up Democratic seats.

Moore appears to be a better match for the overall mood in the state. He became famous for refusing more than a decade ago to remove a monument featuring the Ten Commandments from the court offices. He lost his seat as a result, later regaining it only to resign after refusing to hew to court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage.

In his run for the Senate, he has lamented “spiritual wickedness in high places” and said varied societal ills were “a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins.” In a recent rally, he referred to Native Americans and Asian Americans as “reds and yellows.”

Strange’s appointment gave him an advantage with some voters but a disadvantage with others. As the establishment candidate, he has carried the unpopularity of fellow senators such as McConnell.

Trump, in his remarks, telegraphed that the connection was a problem for Strange.

“He’s not a friend of Mitch McConnell. He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell, until just recently,” Trump said in one of several similar arguments. “He just got there.”

But as much as he pitched Strange’s positives, Trump also focused on his own, offering an extensive litany of the accomplishments he said he had achieved over his tumultuous months in office.

“Every day, I am keeping my promises,” he said, as if urging others to focus on that, and not his more notable difficulties.

For more on politics from Cathleen Decker »

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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