Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk

Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMexican presidential candidate vows to fire back at Trump's 'offensive' tweets Elizabeth Warren urges grads to fight for 'what is decent' in current political climate Jim Carrey takes aim at Kent State grad who posed with AR-10 MORE did most of the talking at a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans on Tuesday where disagreements between the White House and his congressional allies were pushed to the side.

Trump dominated the room, voicing confidence about the midterm elections, updating lawmakers on diplomatic talks with North Korea and even musing about retiring one day to West Virginia.

He took only two questions from lawmakers during the hourlong meeting which was just as notable for the topics that didn’t come up: Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainHow House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by CVS Health - A pivotal day for House Republicans on immigration MORE (R-Ariz.) and trade policies that have unnerved senators from agriculture-heavy states.

The story about a White House aide’s derisive comments about McCain, who was diagnosed with brain cancer last year, dominated headlines and cable news ahead of the meeting.

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GOP senators have been publicly calling for the White House to apologize for the staffer’s remark, made at an internal meeting, that McCain’s opposition to CIA director nominee Gina Haspel didn’t matter since he is “dying anyway.”

Just on Monday night, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers Twitter CEO meets with lawmakers to talk net neutrality, privacy Senate votes to save net neutrality rules MORE (R-S.D.) called the remarks a “really unfortunate circumstance,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynOvernight Finance: House panel to take up bill toughening review of foreign deals | Trump acknowledges Cohen payment on disclosure form | Officials set for new round of China trade talks Groups urge Senate panel to reject Trump's pick for Louisiana-based appeals court House panel will consider bill to boost foreign investment review powers next week MORE (R-Texas) said an apology would be “appropriate” and Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) called the comments “stupid” and “a big mistake.”

But when face-to-face with Trump, no one in the room dared to challenge him over the lack of an apology.

“That’s not what we do in these meetings, OK? No one would have ever brought up something like that,” Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump to hold Nashville rally amid efforts to boost GOP Senate hopeful Kim Jong Un surprises with savvy power plays Tax reform postmortem reveals lethal dose of crony capitalism MORE (R-Tenn.) told reporters after the meeting.

GOP senators also backed away from challenging Trump over his trade agenda, which has sparked strong criticism from farm-state Republicans in recent months.

Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSinger Jason Mraz: Too much political 'combat' in Washington Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Pfizer — Trump, Kim summit set for June 12 in Singapore MORE (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, did not press the president on retaliatory Chinese trade tariffs despite complaining about the administration’s threat of tariffs for weeks.

“He knows my position on trade,” Roberts said. “I don’t know how much more challenge you need. I think he’s very much aware of it when you get letters from several hundred farm groups and commodity organizations.”

Instead, the meeting mostly appeared to be a love fest.

Senators praised the meeting as “cordial,” “productive” and, most of all, entertaining.

“The president’s in a very good mood and really quite funny and reviewed all of the new developments abroad,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP lawmakers want Trump to stop bashing Congress Parkland father calls out Trump, McConnell, Ryan after Santa Fe shooting Overnight Finance: House rejects farm bill in conservative revolt | NAFTA deal remains elusive as talks drag on | Dodd-Frank rollback set for House vote MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters.

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsGOP lawmakers want Trump to stop bashing Congress Senate panel advances Trump's CIA nominee Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk MORE (R-S.D.) said the president dropped various “one-liners” to keep his audience engaged.

“He had some great one-liners,” Rounds said. “It was a whole series of them.”

Other Republicans said Trump gave GOP senators his own version of the Johnson treatment — named after former President Lyndon Johnson, who used his physicality to whip senators into line — by gripping hands and beaming a confident smile.

He warmly greeted Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers Overnight Finance: Watchdog weighs probe into handling of Cohen bank records | Immigration fight threatens farm bill | House panel rebukes Trump on ZTE | Trump raises doubts about trade deal with China MORE (R-Ky.), who threatened earlier this month to derail Trump’s pick to head the State Department and now is threatening to vote against Haspel, grinning and shaking his hand when Paul entered the dark-wood paneled Mansfield Room where Republicans hold their weekly lunch.

Trump kept his remarks on trade general, promising to negotiate better deals with Canada and Mexico. 

He told lawmakers that his administration is “making a lot of progress” on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, but “we’re not there yet,” according to one lawmaker in the room.

Trump and Republicans have had a relatively good two weeks of news, between an unemployment rate that has fallen to 3.9 percent and the release of three prisoners in North Korea who traveled back to the United States last week.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal is also broadly popular with the conference, as was his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerMcConnell: Midterms will be 'very challenging' for GOP Singer Jason Mraz: Too much political 'combat' in Washington Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk MORE (R-Nev.) spoke up to tell Trump about his trip to Israel over the weekend to attend the opening ceremony for the new embassy.

The good news has fostered renewed optimism among Republicans about this fall’s midterms, where the GOP believes it can grow its majority in the Senate regardless of what happens in the House.

Trump focused his remarks on the economy, regaling senators with evidence of a strong domestic job market and improving consumer sentiment.

McConnell said that “everybody’s excited about the condition of the economy and how the country seems to be in an upbeat mood heading into the fall election.”

Still, there are some frustrations on the part of the president, and Trump wasn’t afraid to call attention to them.

Trump reiterated his demand that Congress fund a wall on the Mexican border, but did not raise the thorny question of what to do about hundreds of thousands of immigrants facing deportation because of his decision to scrap the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Trump reassured GOP senators that the party will do just fine in November.

“He was very confident about the midterms,” said Kennedy. “He said, ‘I feel very confident about the midterm. I think we’re going to do much better than some folks are giving us credit for.’ ”

But Trump didn’t point to any polling data to back up his optimism, according to lawmakers.

Trump didn’t appear concerned about last week’s tough Senate primary in West Virginia, where McConnell earned a huge victory with the defeat of former coal executive Don Blankenship.

He predicted that Republicans would have a good chance of defeating Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump to hold Nashville rally amid efforts to boost GOP Senate hopeful Voters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating Overnight Finance: House rejects farm bill in conservative revolt | NAFTA deal remains elusive as talks drag on | Dodd-Frank rollback set for House vote MORE (D-W.Va.) in the fall, according to a senator in the room.

Trump promised to visit the state during the campaign and dismissed Manchin as someone who always makes a point of hugging him but almost never votes with the president on big policy issues. 

He also predicted that Republicans would likely knock off Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyVoters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers MORE (D) in Indiana. 

Jordain Carney, Peter Sullivan and Nathaniel Weixel contributed.