At a private fundraising event in Missouri Wednesday night, President Trump broke his silence on why he thought Democrat Conor Lamb was able to secure an apparent victory in a highly watched special election in a Western Pennsylvania congressional district that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 election.
"The young man last night that ran, he said, 'Oh, I'm like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.' He ran on that basis," Trump said, according to an audio recording obtained by The Atlantic. "He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, 'Is he a Republican? He sounds like a Republican to me.' "
Both the Washington Post and Politico also obtained copies of the recording, made during a closed-door fundraiser for Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley.
Trump was repeating talking points many Republicans had offered throughout the day on Wednesday, in an attempt to explain how a GOP stronghold like Pennsylvania's 18th District could end up electing a Democrat for the first time since Michael Doyle's victory in 2000.
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"Both of these candidates, the Republican and the Democrat, ran as conservatives, ran as pro-gun, pro-life, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservatives," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters.
Throughout the campaign, Lamb largely ran as a moderate Democrat on both issues, opposing a GOP-proposed 20-week ban on abortions and calling for a stronger system of background checks for people purchasing firearms. Lamb avoided making Trump a central part of his campaign, but criticized Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare and called the GOP tax bill a "giveaway" to wealthy Americans, opinions that put him at odds with the president.
"We didn't need to add a penny to our debt to have the tax cut for our working and middle-class people," Lamb said during a debate with Republican Rick Saccone.
Trump held a rally for Saccone days before Tuesday's election. While the visit ultimately didn't help the Republican win, Trump still took credit for helping narrow the loss.
"We had an interesting time because we lifted [Saccone] seven points up. That's a lot," Trump said. "And I was up 22 points, and we lifted seven, and seven normally would be enough, but we'll see how it all comes out. It's, like, virtually a tie."
Jonathan Lemire, a White House reporter for the Associated Press, called the president's assertion "laughable," pointing out on MSNBC Thursday morning that there's no way to spin Republicans losing a seat Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.
"There are real questions about what President Trump's coattails, what his impact will be, as we head towards the midterms," Lemire said on Morning Joe. "My wife's family is from Westmoreland County… that is Trump country. And the fact that there is now a loss here, even a narrow one, is worrisome to the White House despite what they're saying publicly."
Amber Phillips, a reporter for the Washington Post's The Fix, also called Trump's comments "laughable," pointing out that they still didn't explain why his Republican opponent, who said he was "Trump before Trump was Trump" during the campaign, lost the election.
"All other things being equal, wouldn't a Republican running in a Republican district do better than a Democrat allegedly pretending to be a Republican?" Phillips wrote. "If Democrats can beat Republicans at their own game, well then, Republicans still should have a lot to worry about."
Paul Begala, a CNN political analyst and former advisor to President Clinton, said there's one main lesson Republicans should take away from the results in western Pennsylvania: Trump can't save their elections, even if they represent a Trump district.