Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk

Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure 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 McCainPelosi receives John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Romney: Trump 'has distanced himself from some of the best qualities of the human character' MSNBC host: Barr 'the most dangerous person' who works for Trump 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: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Senate Commerce chair to renew push for regs on self-driving vehicles Hillicon Valley: Facebook co-founder calls for breaking up company | Facebook pushes back | Experts study 2020 candidates to offset 'deepfake' threat | FCC votes to block China Mobile | Groups, lawmakers accuse Amazon of violating children's privacy MORE (R-S.D.) called the remarks a “really unfortunate circumstance,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Trump's immigration push faces Capitol Hill buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate 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 CorkerJeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump Corker: 'I just don't' see path to challenge Trump in 2020 Ex-GOP Sen. Corker: Trump primary would be 'good thing for our country' 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 RobertsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Tough questions await Trump immigration plan Pat Robertson: Alabama 'has gone too far' with 'extreme' abortion law Pat Robertson on if Equality Act passes: The land will 'vomit you out' 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — McConnell, Kaine offer bill to raise tobacco buying age to 21 | Measles outbreak spreads to 24 states | Pro-ObamaCare group launches ad blitz to protect Dems MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters.

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsKlobuchar: Trump plan doesn't deal with 'comprehensive immigration issue' GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump On The Money: Wells Fargo CEO steps down | Trump vows to keep funding for Special Olympics | House panel approves marijuana banking bill | Controversial Fed pick gains support in Senate 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 PaulGOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending House Freedom Caucus votes to condemn Amash's impeachment comments Bolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran 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 HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary 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) ManchinLabor head warns of 'frightening uptick' in black lung disease among miners Labor leader: Trump has stopped erosion of coal jobs Overnight Energy: States fight Trump rollback of Obama lightbulb rules | Greens seek hearing over proposed rule on energy efficiency tests | Top Dem asks GAO to investigate climate threat 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 DonnellyObama honors 'American statesman' Richard Lugar Former GOP senator Richard Lugar dies at 87 Ralph Reed: Biden is a 'formidable and strong candidate' MORE (D) in Indiana. 

Jordain Carney, Peter Sullivan and Nathaniel Weixel contributed.