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Looking to put a positive spin on a stunning political upset, President Donald Trump said Democrat Conor Lamb — the yet-to-be-declared winner of last week’s closely watched special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district — "ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me."
Trump made the comment at a private fundraiser for Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley a day after the March 13 election, The Washington Post reported.
But did Lamb’s campaign actually say "very nice things" about the president, or was this an attempt to minimize a looming Republican loss in a reliably red district?
What Lamb said about Trump
Lamb said very little about the president during the expedited campaign to fill a seat vacated late last year by disgraced former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy who held the spot for more than a decade. But Lamb also held off on criticizing the commander-in-chief at a time when many Democrats have made the president the focus of their calls to action.
Lamb was careful not to alienate voters in the traditionally conservative district, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
"Lamb did not want to arouse the Trump supporters in a district [Trump] won by 20 points," Madonna said. "He wanted the election to be local, where he could focus on his strengths."
Asked if she agreed that the Lamb campaign had praise for Trump around points of agreement, campaign manager Abby Murphy said "No, I don't think it was ever that specific."
She added: "What was important to the voters of this district were things like jobs and the heroin epidemic and infrastructure. I think the congressman-elect made it very clear that he’s willing to work with whomever to make those things happen. I think it’s very clear that that’s what his intent was."
Lamb is the projected winner of the 18th District seat, with just a few hundred votes separating him and Republican candidate Rick Saccone, who conceded to Lamb on Wednesday. Votes were still being tallied and reviewed as of Wednesday, and the results remained unofficial. Republicans previously said they were considering challenging the results, alleging the vote was tainted by irregularities and other issues.
On Tuesday, Trump said Saccone had narrowly lost the race, CNN reported.
"It was really close," Trump told the crowd at a Republican fundraising event. "We went in there. They were down. Good man, Rick Saccone. Good man. And didn't quite make it. But lost, think of it, lost by about 300 votes out of all of those votes. So, it's pretty incredible. But we can't let it happen. We have to win. There's nothing like winning. We have to win."
During the campaign, Lamb did express support for Trump’s plan to apply stiff tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. He also told The Atlantic, "We need the office of the presidency to succeed if we’re gonna make any progress on these issues," when asked what he thought of Trump.
But experts argue that even if you judge those comments as charitable by 2018 political standards, Trump’s "very nice things" claim remains misleading.
"I think the closest thing [Lamb] said to something complimentary about Trump was his endorsement of the [metals] tariffs," said Dave Weigel, a reporter who covered the District 18 campaign for The Washington Post.
Weigel added, "What Lamb did instead, as you probably saw, was not mention the president and make the election more about the Republicans who run Congress."
Lamb did criticize the tax cuts bill shepherded through Congress by Republicans and signed into law by the president last year.
White House representatives declined to comment for this story.
In an interview with Lamb for The Atlantic, assistant editor Elaine Godfrey wrote that Lamb was "careful not to present his candidacy as a way to oppose Trump," adding, "Yes, Trump is a historically unpopular leader, and Lamb is running against a Republican who once bragged that he was ‘Trump before Trump was Trump.’ But as members of the campaign team reminded me repeatedly, Lamb wants to focus solely on local issues, and doesn’t want the race to become a tribal contest."
When asked about Trump directly, Godfrey wrote that Lamb offered this response: "We need the office of the presidency to succeed if we’re gonna make any progress on these issues. The number-one thing people talk about is wanting to get someone down there who’s actually gonna attack the problem, not attack the other side."
Godfrey wrote that Lamb "never mentioned the president by name" in the course of their conversation.
What Trump said about Lamb
While Lamb remained largely silent on the subject of the White House, Trump didn’t always return the favor.
At a March 10 rally for Saccone in Moon Township, the president referred to Lamb as "Lamb the sham" and said "I hear he’s nice looking. I think I'm better looking than him. I do. I do. I do."
On CNN’s New Day program, host Alisyn Camerota asked Lamb about the "Lamb the sham" comment, but Lamb quickly pivoted back to the campaign.
"Apart from that, there was a lot of foolishness in this election and a lot of cartoonish campaigning, and by the time of the president’s visit last weekend, people were kind of tired of that approach," he said.
Asked about Trump saying he was "better looking," Lamb laughed.
"I really have no opinion on that one."
Trump said Lamb said "very nice things" about him during the recent special election campaign in southwestern Pennsylvania. Lamb ran as a moderate Democrat in a conservative district and avoided openly criticizing the president. At times Lamb showed himself to be in agreement with Trump on certain policy points. But Trump equating this with high praise goes too far in interpreting and exaggerating what Lamb actually said.
We found no evidence of Lamb lavishing praise on the president and instead found evidence of Lamb repeatedly pivoting away from the subject on the campaign trail.
We rate this claim False.
Video clip, Lamb rejects suggestion that Pennsylvania special election was about Trump, CNN’s New Day, March 14, 2018
News article, Conor Lamb, citing need for new leadership, will not support Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 8, 2018
News article, This Democrat Is Running for Congress—but Not Against Trump, The Atlantic, March 5, 2018
News article, The many odd and wrong things Trump said at his closed-door fundraiser, annotated, The Washington Post, March 15, 2018
News article, Lamb: Pennsylvania race isn't about Trump, The Hill, March 13, 2018
News article, Conor Lamb says he wouldn't support Nancy Pelosi to lead House Democrats, TribLive, Jan. 8, 2018
News article, Trump: Saccone 'didn't quite make it,' CNN, March 20, 2018
Phone interview, Abby Murphy, Conor Lamb campaign manager, March 21, 2018
Email, G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs, professor of public affairs, and director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., March 20, 2018
Phone interview, Dave Weigel, politics reporter with The Washington Post, March 20, 2018
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