The roiling feud between presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump and reluctant Republican leaders reached a turning point Thursday as the two sides declared their willingness to gloss over substantive policy differences and work together to defeat probable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in November.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who set off a political earthquake last week by refusing to endorse the real estate mogul, told reporters after a high-profile meeting with Trump at the Republican National Committee headquarters that he was “encouraged” by their conversation – though he still stopped short of an endorsement.
“It’s no secret that Donald Trump and I have had our differences. We talked about those differences today,” he said during a news conference on Capitol Hill. “It was important that we discussed our differences that we have, but it was also important that we discuss the core principles that tie us together.”
Ryan and Trump also issued a joint statement in which the two spoke about recognizing their “many important areas of common ground.”
The declarations of unity followed a whirlwind day of closed-door meetings between Trump and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. A circus-like horde of media and scattered protesters trailed the candidate as his motorcade moved from stop to stop.
Behind the public facade of harmony, House members and senators confronted Trump in the meetings with their concerns over specific policies or controversial statements that could hurt Republicans in the fall, including on foreign policy, immigration and paying down the national debt. Ryan brought charts and laid out his views that the federal government is on a dangerous fiscal path.
In a separate 75-minute meeting with Senate leadership, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he raised “the issue of tone” on Latinos and offered to help Trump, given his own support among Hispanic voters in Texas. Cornyn also said Trump was told that some senators may have to distance themselves from him in their reelection bids.
“He looked forward to being helpful where he could,” Cornyn told reporters, noting that some states might be more amenable to Trump policies. “As this thing develops, we’re going to be trying to figure out where it makes sense and where it doesn’t. He also understands that some places, people may choose to run independently and not join up with the presidential” race.
The exchanges underscored the tightrope that many Republicans are attempting to walk with Trump, whose unfavorability numbers are at historic highs for a major party candidate. He faces particularly strong opposition among women and minorities. Sharp policy differences, skepticism over his commitment to conservative principles and lingering concerns over his controversial statements continue to pose significant obstacles to a full detente between Trump and the establishment. All but one of the living former GOP presidential nominees have refused to endorse him.
At the same time, a growing number of sitting lawmakers and notable GOP figures have concluded in recent days they will support him. Former vice president Dan Quayle gave Trump a full throated endorsement Thursday, calling him “more qualified” than Clinton in an interview with NBC. Trump also received endorsements Thursday from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and GOP campaign committee chairs Roger Wicker, a senator from Mississippi, and Greg Walden, a congressman from Oregon.
“We are on the same page on a lot of things, in terms of the things we want to accomplish and get signed into law, the things the president’s opposed and vetoed,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), who has endorsed Trump. “Donald Trump wants to be a president that’s taking action to reverse the damage and get things moving again, and we want to work with him to help get that done.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), also a Trump backer, seemed particularly optimistic about finding common ground on issues such as tax reform and other House priorities. “I think when you talk about ideas, you talk about vision, that’s a perfect place for people to unite,” he said.
In the Senate meeting, Trump listened as senators took turns raising issues of concern about his raucous campaign so far. Few would specify what details were discussed, preferring to emphasize that the gathering was cordial in tone.
“It was a good listening session – it really was, on both sides,” said Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), who is considered one of the more vulnerable Republicans seeking reelection this year.
“He offered his views on many things,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (Nebraska), a Trump supporter who was in the meeting with Senate GOP leaders. “We brought up different things that are of concern to us and to the people we represent. He listened. He listened well. And we had a great discussion.” She declined to provide further details.
In his news conference, Ryan said “policy teams” from his office and Trump’s campaign were going to meet to “work through the details” of policies that they could jointly support. He called unifying the party “a process” and said it would “take some time” before it comes together.
“Going forward, we’re going to go a little deeper in the policy weeds to make sure we have a better understanding of one another,” he said.
Trump and his campaign have signaled a willingness to make amends with party leaders who have been critical in the past. Trump reached out this week to his sharpest Republican critic on Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (South Carolina), who has regularly sparred with Trump and has said he will not vote for him.
In a 15-minute phone conversation Wednesday night, the two men agreed to stop insulting one another through the media, Graham told reporters Thursday. Graham said he is still not endorsing Trump, however.
“He won,” Graham said, calling Trump “very funny” in their conversation. “He obviously can take a punch.”
One reason to mend fences is Trump’s need for access to the party’s data, resources and advisers for the fall election. The campaign is racing to organize as many as 50 fundraisers with a goal of raising up to $1 billion to compete in the general election; the first event is slated for later this month in Los Angeles.
As Republicans move toward an uneasy unity, Democrats are eagerly portraying Trump as the embodiment of the Republican Party. In a sharply worded floor speech Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nevada) said McConnell and other Republicans were responsible for the rise of Trump because of their refusal to compromise with President Obama and Democrats.
“At some point in their conversation, Donald Trump should thank the senior senator from Kentucky,” Reid said, referring to McConnell. “Trump owes his candidacy to the Republican leader and to the policies that he’s led. It was an obstructionist, anti-woman, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, anti-middle class, anti-environment and anti-Obama and anti-everything Republican Party of the last eight years that made Donald Trump a reality.”
For its part, the Clinton campaign blasted out a statement, as Trump was meeting with Ryan, highlighting the ranks of establishment Republicans who have declined to support their party’s expected presidential candidate.
“Since Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president last Tuesday, the chorus of Republicans and conservative commentators from around the country rejecting his unpredictable, risky and divisive candidacy has grown daily,” the statement said.