Trump's Capitol Hill Visit Fails to Bring Party Unity
Donald Trump ventured to Washington seeking party unity 10 days ahead of the Republican convention in Cleveland, but the visit did little to convert the holdouts.
While the presumptive nominee was greeted cordially by most members of the House Republican conference, senators across the Capitol offered a more critical reception.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona confronted Trump about his past controversial statements, including criticisms earlier in the cycle about his colleague, John McCain. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a leader of the Never Trump movement, said through a spokesperson that the election “remains a dumpster fire; nothing has changed.”
One former foe, however, left with positive thoughts.
After meeting privately with Trump and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Ted Cruz accepted an invitation to speak at the convention. Still, he stopped short of endorsing the man he criticized so vigorously during the primary season.
Trump’s visit comes against the backdrop of continued self-inflicted controversy at a time when Hillary Clinton is most vulnerable, after having been admonished by the FBI for her mishandling of classified information on a private email server. Still, despite Trump’s missteps this week -- a tweet using an image perceived as anti-Semitic and his characterization of Saddam Hussein as a “bad guy” but good at killing terrorists -- Republicans largely came away from the meeting united against Clinton and heartened by the FBI’s criticisms of her judgment, a theme they hope to thread in this campaign.
“It’s a pretty unifying theme,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who is facing a difficult re-election bid in a state where Trump is running several points behind Clinton. “Mr. Trump did a great job of talking about let’s stay positive, let’s stay unified.”
To press his case among lawmakers, Trump lambasted the media for misconstruing his comments about Hussein and other issues.
“He feels like there is a lack of fairness showing him the way he truly is,” said Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, a member of Republican leadership.
Such comments, however, reinforced some lawmakers’ reluctance to support him. “It’s disgusting and despicable,” said Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran. “I’m not a Never Trump guy -- I’m a Republican and I want to support the nominee -- but things like the Saddam comment are not helping me to get there.” Kinzinger said there was “a lack of enthusiasm in the room. You can feel it.”
Congressman Cresent Hardy of Nevada raised concern about the party nominee alienating Hispanic voters, to which Trump argued that he believed he would outperform Mitt Romney among that key voting bloc. (Romney received support from just 27 percent of Latino voters in 2012, however.)
“I think we have got to constantly show that we’re a party of inclusion, and I hope he does a better job,” said Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon. “I personally come from a state where we have a large Hispanic population. And while we all have concerns about the border, we also have a great value for the Hispanics in our state, and the last thing in the world I want to do is push them away from the Republican Party.”
Flake has been particularly critical of Trump over his rhetoric about Hispanics, including his criticisms of Judge Gonzalo Curiel. According to the Washington Post, Flake identified himself to Trump during the meeting as “the other senator from Arizona -- the one who didn’t get captured -- and I want to talk to you about statements like that.” Trump reportedly told Flake he would lose re-election, before the senator reminded him he wasn’t up again until 2018. The Post also reported that Trump criticized Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who was absent from the meeting and, facing one of the most difficult re-election battles in the country, rescinded his endorsement of the apparent nominee last month.
“Nothing that he said changes the view I’ve expressed from the beginning, that I think he lacks the judgment and the temperament and the character to be commander in chief,” said Virginia Rep. Scott Riggell. “I’m greatly disappointed that this is the choice that’s before us: two candidates who, in my view, are unfit for office and for the first time in my life, at 56, I’ll go in and write in a candidate.”
Not all lawmakers were as critical, however. Many came away with positive feelings, noting that Trump spoke their language about fixing the economy and appointing conservative Supreme Court justices. It was the first time many rank-and-file Republicans had the chance to meet face to face with their nominee.
Trump visited Capitol Hill in May to meet with party leaders. Lawmakers said that Trump talked about expanding the Republican map and campaigning on the Republican agenda.
“I think there’s a growing realization inside the Republican Senate caucus that we have a candidate that can win in November,” said Georgia Sen. David Perdue. “He’s an outsider, he’s a business guy and he’s listening to people back home.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the upper chamber, sounded an optimistic tone, arguing his party would unite against Clinton and President Obama. “I think you’re seeing the process of unification start,” he said.
Rep. Bill Flores of Texas said that while he believes Trump has a way to go, “I’ve got the confidence that you’re going to see a lot more in terms of visionary messaging and a lot more in terms of him expressing the contrast between himself and the other flawed candidate -- let me rephrase that, he’s going to do a better job contrasting between himself and the Democrats’ flawed candidate.”