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When Foreign Trip Is Over, Trump Will Again Face Domestic Controversies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, once he finishes his overseas trip, President Trump returns home to controversies. Investigations, gaffes, questions about cover-ups have kept the president's approval ratings at historic lows for a new chief executive. He's down to his core supporters, who still number in the many millions. And he pays close attention to them. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on the care and feeding of a political base.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Next Thursday, Donald Trump will hold a rally in Iowa, one of the red states on that Electoral College victory map the president likes to display. At almost every event Trump has held here at home, he has spoken to his base, either to organizations like the NRA or Liberty University or to voters in states he won, like Florida and Pennsylvania. When it comes to his core supporters, one thing hasn't changed since the campaign. Trump is confident they have his back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that - where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible.

LIASSON: In the past, a president who won with only 46 percent of the vote would work hard to reach out and expand his base. But Trump doesn't feel the need, says Middlebury College professor Sue Halpern.

SUE HALPERN: When Donald Trump leaves Washington, he goes and talks to his base. And people say over and over again, why is he having another campaign rally? Well, this is why he's having another campaign rally - because his job, as he sees it, is to energize his base - to keep them energized for the next couple of years so they do the exact same thing that they did in the last election, which is show up and vote for him.

LIASSON: White House aides say Trump gets a psychological boost from being out among his supporters, as all embattled presidents do. And for Trump, this is a proven political strategy. In the 2016 campaign, Trump was successful and sophisticated at targeting his base, getting historic levels of the white, non-college vote by using social media and a powerful message of grievance at the establishment and elites. That's a message he's never stopped delivering, even at events that don't seem to have anything to do with base politics, such as this month's Coast Guard Academy commencement address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: No politician in history - and I say this with great surety - has been treated worse or more unfairly.

LIASSON: Today that message is amplified just the way it was during the campaign, through social media and friendly websites and cable channels.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)

SEAN HANNITY: All right, we start tonight with the Trump-hating Washington Post.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: The Washington establishment - but the thing they fear is Trump succeeding.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Because a leaker of classified information who helps them in their effort to stop the Trump agenda...

HANNITY: They're now smearing the commander in chief.

LIASSON: The idea that President Trump is being unfairly attacked is widely shared among his supporters, says Joel Pollak, senior editor at the pro-Trump website Breitbart.

JOEL POLLAK: Trump's supporters view the entire Russia affair as a conspiracy theory that is being used as a weapon to try to depose the president. And they view it not just as an attack on him but as an attack on them. They voted to take their country back, and they feel that the media and political elite have rejected that and are trying to take away their democratic choice.

LIASSON: And so far, Trump's base is sticking with him. But there are signs that support could be softening. A new Fox News poll shows Trump's approval rating among whites without a college degree down to 53 percent from 62 percent last month. And other polls show the number of Americans who strongly approve of Trump dipping as well. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose book "Understanding Trump" will be out next month, says the president knows that, over time, his base alone will not be enough.

NEWT GINGRICH: Look, I think that he has a base-plus strategy. But I think he understands that he's going to succeed not by moderating. He's going to succeed if he creates jobs, if the economy is booming, if people think it's working. If he's not creating jobs, if it's not working, then he's in big trouble.

LIASSON: In the end, Gingrich believes Trump will need more than just his hardcore base to win re-election, but 2020 is a long way away. In the meantime, paying meticulous attention to his core supporters serves as an insurance policy for Trump on Capitol Hill. Republicans in Congress are worried about the Russia investigations, but they're not jumping ship because Trump's base overlaps with a big part of the Republican primary electorate. So as long as their own voters stick with Trump, Republican members of Congress will, too.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.