Trump Unites Fractious Capitol Hill GOP behind Him as November Looms

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump meets with Republican senators at the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Thursday.

Former president Donald Trump swooped down on Capitol Hill on Thursday to rally congressional Republicans behind a political and policy message aimed at establishing a GOP lock on Washington in the November elections.

He seems to have achieved the goal of remarkable Republican unanimity.

This was the first time Trump has appeared on Capitol Hill since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection intended to prevent the installation of Joe Biden as president. Since then, he has been impeached – though not convicted – for stirring up the rioters, coasted to a third presumptive Republican nomination for the White House, and become the first former president to be convicted of a crime.

House and Senate Republicans rallied behind their leader in a show of unusual support among their divided ranks. At a Senate lunch, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who nearly broke with Trump over Jan. 6 and had not spoken with him since, sat on his right, according to two sources inside the room, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the party’s No. 2 leader in the chamber who is running to replace McConnell after he retires from the leadership position in November, sat on his left. Trump and McConnell even shook hands.

GOP senators brought out a birthday cake with the American flag emblazoned on it, an early celebration for Trump, who turns 78 on Friday. After the meeting, more than half of the GOP Senate conference stood with Trump as he briefly spoke to reporters.

“This was a great meeting,” the former president said. “There’s tremendous unity in the Republican Party. We want to see borders. We want to see a strong military. We want to see money not wasted all over the world.”

There were no jabs or especially incendiary rhetoric. Trump talked about abortion – blaming GOP messaging on the issue for the party’s worse-than-expected 2022 midterms performance – energy policy and Iran, one person inside the lunch said. Exiting the lunch, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called it “pleasant.” There was surprise, the person at the lunch said, that Trump “behaved so well.”

“He and I got a chance to talk a little bit. We shook hands a few times,” McConnell said. “I can’t think of anything to tell you out of it that was negative.”

In an uncharacteristic moment, Trump – who demands loyalty and tends to punish those who don’t display it – said “three or four or five times” that the disagreements are all right and that they would move past them, Hawley said. Trump also told a Fox News reporter on Thursday he would endorse Larry Hogan, the GOP Senate nominee in Maryland, whom some of Trump’s allies had been feuding with after the former president’s conviction.

“I’m 100 percent for all of you,” Hawley described Trump as saying. “I was like, just, this is kind of surreal.”

The Hill summit marked a pivot point in the GOP campaign to recapture the White House, win the Senate majority and expand control of the House. Despite some private fretting about Trump’s erratic style and controversial rhetoric, lawmakers embraced Trump over the course of the day. Hill Republicans are now all-in, less than a month after Trump’s conviction for concealing a hush money payment to an adult-film actress.

Polls show a tight contest with Biden, and Trump has been shown to have considerable liabilities with some voters. He is still facing three other criminal proceedings.

“He clearly had a plan to go in and try to present as a nominee that could have some consensus in that conference and not make them nervous,” a person at the Senate lunch said.

Trump made no mention of his selection process for a running mate – a process that includes several Senate Republicans.

He did, however, say “nice things” about Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who are all believed to be on his vice-presidential shortlist, according to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters that several of the contenders in the Senate were seated at the front for Trump’s speech.

Trump met first with House Republicans on Thursday morning at the Capitol Hill Club – which is steps away from the U.S. Capitol – before turning his attention to Senate Republicans, whom he met with in the afternoon at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not all House and Senate Republicans attended the gatherings.

Republican skeptics in the House came out saying they’d enjoyed what Trump had to say and were glad to see how jovial he’d been. On the Senate side, lawmakers appeared encouraged to see McConnell and Trump shake hands after years of tension.

But the morning meeting with House Republicans wasn’t without some airing of grievances. A handful of moderate House Republicans representing swing districts skipped the gathering to attend committee hearings instead.

According to sources in the room for that meeting – who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the gathering – Trump delivered bullish remarks on the presidential race, Republicans’ messaging on abortion, lowering costs, his distaste for the Justice Department and his foreign agenda amid ongoing wars.

The former president – who has repeatedly attacked the Justice Department and baselessly accused it of being weaponized against him – called the DOJ “dirty, no-good bastards” during the gathering, according to two people in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. House Republicans have previously pledged to aggressively go after the “weaponization” of government following Trump’s conviction in Manhattan and voted to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress on Wednesday.

House Republicans welcomed Trump with a rendition of the Boehner birthday song – a short and snappy jingle that former speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) instituted. The lawmakers also gave Trump a bat from the annual Congressional Baseball Game, which was held Wednesday night.

Trump praised House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) for his leadership, briefly name-checking Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) for trying to strip the gavel from him last month, an effort that resulted in a bipartisan vote to keep him as speaker.

“Marjorie, be nice to him,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) recounted Trump saying.

Only two out of the four Republican senators still in office who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial attended the lunch – Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.) and Mitt Romney (Utah). Romney had initially said he would not go, but he changed his mind after his morning flight out of Washington was canceled. Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) said they had scheduling conflicts and did not attend.

After the meeting, Cassidy said it “wasn’t awkward” to meet with Trump despite voting to convict him.

“Whoever the president is, I’m gonna work my darnedest to make sure that we work together for my state and our country,” Cassidy said. “There was a point for the former president to connect with the people who are in the Senate. So in that sense, I guess it was productive.”

Cassidy added that he didn’t hear Trump criticize Senate Republicans who have stood up to him, including McConnell and Romney.

When it came to policy, Cornyn said Trump talked about issues similar to those he touched on with House Republicans – inflation, the border, abortion and national security. Trump also expressed “frustration” over his New York trial, Cornyn said.

Trump floated an off-the-cuff proposal to replace the income tax with a universal tariff in his meeting with House Republicans, an idea that would fundamentally topple major fixtures of the U.S. economy and amount to a historic windfall for the wealthiest Americans.

In a discussion about his new proposal to exempt tipped wages from taxes, Trump suggested that massive new import duties could replace all income tax, according to three people familiar with his remarks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

Republicans’ issues with abortion rights were also roundly debated, with Trump saying that those rights should remain a state matter.

According to the people in the room for the House GOP meeting, Trump said Republicans need to do a better job messaging on abortion than they did in 2022 – the year the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, an event that spurred a string of electoral wins and state referendums favoring Democrats. Biden and his campaign have long warned that, if Trump is elected, abortion rights will be further stifled.

According to a source who attended the Senate gathering, Trump acknowledged that abortion is a tough issue for Republicans and probably why they lost the midterms in 2022.

Hawley said Trump emphasized that abortion “should be an issue where voters get to decide the issue and Republicans shouldn’t make it look like we want to take that … issue away from voters.”

“So just tell voters, ‘You decide it. It’s up to you,’” Hawley said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) told reporters that the former president held a “very serious discussion about how Republicans are going to talk about abortion in the upcoming election.”

“President Trump reiterated his perspective that this is a state issue. He thought that gave members who have different views on this issue in our conference an ability to really localize it rather than having to talk about it in the broadest of national terms,” he said.

Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said Trump specifically mentioned Republicans need to “be very careful” about showing “respect for women and the choices that they have to make.”

Trump at one point gleefully pointed out that a majority of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him after Jan. 6 are no longer in the House, mentioning that he does not support a “California Republican” still in office, a reference to Rep. David G. Valadao.

In the meetings, Trump repeatedly offered to help Republican candidates with town-hall-style visits, joining via telephone. In the House gathering, the offer fell flat.

“He believes he can be effective for members in swing districts doing tele-town halls. Each campaign will decide individually if that’s good for their campaign. I haven’t considered it for my race, but it may be useful for others,” said Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.), a freshman from a district that Biden won by nearly 11 percentage points.

Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.), whose Hudson Valley district also favored Biden by double-digit margins four years, chuckled when asked when he would have Trump join him for a tele-town hall.

And Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), whose Omaha-area district favored Biden, left open the possibility that Trump could help in some manner down-ballot. In a presidential year, Trump draws out some voters who skip other elections.

“He generates enthusiasm. So there’s a plus to it,” Bacon said. “I don’t have a plan for it.”