Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk

Trump gives GOP midterm pep talk
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away 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 McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' 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 ThuneSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (R-S.D.) called the remarks a “really unfortunate circumstance,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division 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 CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  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 RobertsBob Dole, Pat Roberts endorse Kansas AG Derek Schmidt for governor Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain 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 McConnellAn August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done After police rip Trump for Jan. 6, McCarthy again blames Pelosi The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters.

Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsEight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Schumer sets up key vote on bipartisan deal 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 Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators Only two people cited by TSA for mask violations have agreed to pay fine Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill 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 HellerDemocrat Jacky Rosen becomes 22nd senator to back bipartisan infrastructure deal 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 On The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare 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 ManchinJoe ManchinTop Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Democrats say they have the votes to advance .5T budget measure 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 DonnellySupreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda Republicans fret over divisive candidates Everybody wants Joe Manchin MORE (D) in Indiana. 

Jordain Carney, Peter Sullivan and Nathaniel Weixel contributed.