WASHINGTON • For President Donald Trump, there are few gray areas. People are for or against him, and the names on the two lists are often interchangeable by the issue, the day — even the hour.
He remains popular in big swaths of Missouri, Republican consultant Jeff Roe said, because of whom he fights with: “He fights with the press, he fights with the Chinese, the North Koreans. He picks the right fights.”
Trump is contradictory, confrontational and confusing. While presidents through the years have honed homilies to the future, Trump often seems most comfortable talking off-the-cuff about the past, especially one day in particular.
His 2016 election night victory, now 16 months in the past, is frequently mentioned by the president.
“One of the greatest nights in the history of television in terms of people watching,” Trump said, mocking shocked TV talking heads, at a raucous Saturday night rally in Pennsylvania for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone.
Trump is sometimes accompanied on this bitter nostalgic tour by his 2016 political opponent Hillary Clinton, who last weekend doubled down on her “deplorables” description of some Trump voters by telling an audience in India that Trump was elected by states, including Missouri, that were “looking backwards.”
Backward or forward, Trump seems immune to irony.
The 71-year-old former reality TV show star who is being sued by a porn star over an alleged pre-election hush money deal struck to cover up an affair, and who was caught on an open mic bragging about how celebrity gave him license to sexually assault women, is coming to St. Louis on Wednesday.
After a roundtable meeting at Boeing Co., Trump will raise money for Attorney General Josh Hawley, 38, who says sex trafficking was caused by the 1960s sexual revolution. The Republican is challenging Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and who will run a campaign blaming Hollywood for perpetuating “a culture that is bad for the country,” in the words of Hawley consultant Brad Todd.
To Trump, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is “Little Rocket Man” one day, then a possible history-altering negotiating partner to address a decades-old, nuclear-tinged diplomatic stalemate the next.
The president fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, saying “we got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things.”
Trump’s attacks on the press are central to his governing philosophy, and they’ve escalated. He frequently calls out journalists by name at rallies and uses vulgarities to refer to some. He called NBC “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd a “sleeping son of a bitch” at that Pennsylvania rally. Yet one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets is that Trump is phone partners with journalists from news outlets he routinely describes as “failing,” even though they are not.
When the president comes to town, photographers get busy looking for those moments.
Trump’s roundtable discussion on the economy with business leaders will be hosted by Boeing, a company whose stock has soared under Trump’s administration, in part because of hefty new defense spending, including for the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter jets built in St. Louis.
But Boeing’s stock also took a hit in the wake of Trump’s announcement last week that he would impose targeted tariffs on imported aluminum and steel.
Representatives of nine other Missouri companies, ranging from College of the Ozarks to Kansas City Southern Railway, will participate in the forum with Trump, ostensibly to extol the tax cuts Trump signed late last year. All the invited companies announced either employee bonuses, capital investments or a combination as a result of the tax cuts.
And yet, even the planning for the Boeing event was wrinkled with political intrigue. The White House first announced Friday that Hawley, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and state Treasurer Eric Schmitt would accompany Trump at that roundtable with business leaders.
Left conspicuously off that list was Gov. Eric Greitens, under felony indictment for alleged actions in an extramarital affair.
Then the White House reversed course, saying only Trump would participate in the roundtable at Boeing, with a White House spokeswoman saying the change was designed to keep the focus on Trump’s policies.
Hawley, who culminated a three-event campaign launch tour in Chesterfield Tuesday evening, will not have Greitens campaigning for him this year.
Greitens “has plenty on his plate, and I would not expect to see him on the campaign trail this year,” Brad Todd, Hawley’s consultant, said.
In a campaign appearance in Raytown, Mo., Hawley said he looks forward to having Trump’s support. But how does Hawley, a relatively blank slate as a politician, associate himself with a president who can raise a lot of money for him, but who also comes with so many complexities and contradictions?
Hawley will try to separate the politician from the policies. He will try to focus on cuts in regulations and taxes, and on Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court appointment, and leave to Trump the attacks on the Chuck Todds or the stormy headlines about porn star payoffs.
“I think this is a lot less about the president’s sort of personal ratings (than) where his agenda is,” said Brad Todd, Hawley’s consultant, no relation to the “Meet the Press” host.
“There is no question that Missourians voted for the policies that the president proposed in the campaign in 2016, and Claire McCaskill has helped him achieve virtually none of those,” Todd said. “And I think that she has to be accountable to the people of Missouri for the fact that she has tried to thwart the agenda that they supported.”
McCaskill was too busy for an interview for this story, her campaign press secretary said. But she weighed in on Trump in an interview with the Post-Dispatch late last year.
“I just think he is somebody who has been very polarizing,” McCaskill said. “He is one of the first presidents that I remember who has made no effort to bring people together.”
Trump, McCaskill added, “is very focused on his base, the people who are very supportive of him. … And in doing that he sends a signal to everyone else that he does not care about bringing them to the table.”
Which may be central to the Trump strategy as he campaigns for Hawley and other Republican candidates in 2018.
Nonpresidential elections are “base elections,” the Republican consultant Roe said, “and you need your base fired up.”
One Missouri political scientist said Hawley has a tall order in trying to finesse his relationship with Trump, who endorsed the attorney general over three other Republican primary candidates when Trump appeared in St. Charles last November.
“First, Hawley is going to be associated with Trump no matter what Hawley does,” said Dave Robertson, chair of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “His political opponents will ensure that, just as they associated John McCain with the unpopular George W. Bush in 2008. Fair or unfair, this is a nationalized election, and Hawley would need a miracle and a major unforced McCaskill error to overcome the trends that work against Republicans.”
Robertson added: “Missourians may support a number of Trump policies, but they are not terribly fond of Trump’s performance as president.”
The latest RealClear Politics average of polls has Trump’s national approval rating at 41 percent, with 53.9 percent disapproving. It’s in the mid-50s in internal Republican polling in the state.
“The question for me is, what’s the tipping point?” Robertson said. “How many false things can he say? How much vulgarity can he use?”
But this president will have it no other way. At that speech in Pennsylvania over the weekend, Trump made fun of politicians who put on teleprompted airs; he even mocked the term “presidential” while speaking in a fake baritone about how he’d sound if he tried to do that.
“If I came like a stiff, you guys wouldn’t be here tonight,” Trump said. “You’d be so bored.”
“You’re one of us,” a woman shouted from the audience, and the people cheered.