Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk

Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism 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 McCainPence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report GOP lawmaker renews call for Trump to release tax returns after Putin summit House conservatives criticize media, not Trump, for Putin furor 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.

ADVERTISEMENT
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 ThuneSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk MORE (R-S.D.) called the remarks a “really unfortunate circumstance,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash McConnell: Russians are not our friends Russians' indictment casts shadow ahead of Trump-Putin summit 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 CorkerSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump seeks to quell Russia furor 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 RobertsGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Senate passes mammoth farm bill Moderates need to hold firm against radical right on Farm Bill 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 McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash House passes bipartisan bill to boost business investment MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters.

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsHillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback Senate adds members to pro-NATO group GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE 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 PaulThe Nation editor: Reaction by most of the media to Trump-Putin press conference 'is like mob violence' Lewandowski: Trump-Putin meeting advances goal of world peace Rand Paul to travel to Russia after downplaying election meddling 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 HellerSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Jacky Rosen hits Dean Heller over health care in first negative ad GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh 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) ManchinSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Morrisey accuses Manchin of 'lying' to Trump, attacks ‘liberal’ record The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments 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 DonnellySenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Fed chief lays out risks of trade war Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee MORE (D) in Indiana. 

Jordain Carney, Peter Sullivan and Nathaniel Weixel contributed.