What happened when Donald Trump came to Capitol Hill

What happened when Donald Trump came to Capitol Hill
© Haiyun Jiang

There were traffic cones and motorcades; federal agents and Capitol Police. Protestors screamed and reporters swarmed; the bagpipes brayed and the gawkers gawked.

Donald Trump had come to town.

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The Republicans' all-but-certain presidential nominee stormed into Washington on Thursday, captivating Capitol Hill as he bounced from one meeting to the next on a whirlwind tour designed to rally top Republicans — most notably Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDemocratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' Trump lashes out at Reagan Foundation after fundraising request The Memo: Trump's grip on GOP loosens as polls sink MORE (R-Wis.) — behind his unlikely White House bid.

The GOP's most powerful stars gathered first at the Republican National Committee headquarters, where Trump met with Ryan, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and other House leaders before moving across Constitution Avenue to huddle with Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms States begin removing Capitol's Confederate statues on their own Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE (R-Ky.) and his top lieutenants at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

Afterwards, for good measure, Trump dropped by Jones Day, a prominent D.C. law firm near the Capitol with close ties to his campaign. By mid-afternoon, he was on his plane and gone.

Expectations were low for an instant Trump-Ryan alliance — the Speaker had made sure of that all week — and Ryan afterwards refused again to endorse the presumptive Republican nominee.

“This is a process. It takes a little time,” Ryan told reporters afterwards. “You don't put it together in 45 minutes.”

But the absence of news hardly mattered. Everywhere Trump went, the circus followed.

Outside the RNC building, banks of TV cameras lined First Street SE, aimed at closed doors that saw a steady stream of coffee-wielding GOP staffers but no Trump, Ryan or Priebus, who all slid through a back entrance to avoid the scrum of reporters.

The only lawmaker seen to enter through the front was Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who was not a part of the meeting but did turn some heads when he hopped a railing on a shortcut into the building.

The protesters represented a modest crowd — tallying two dozen or so, they were dwarfed by the hordes of reporters — but they compensated in decibels what they lacked in numbers. GOP staffers inside the RNC said they could hear the clamor outside throughout the meeting.

Most protesters were immigration reform advocates who launched attacks both on Trump, for his hardline positions on deportations, and on GOP leaders “for continuing to negotiate with such a racist and a hateful candidate,” in the words of one Hispanic activist.

At one point, they tried to enter the RNC building with a cardboard coffin holding an elephant. Their message was clear: Trump is the death of the Republican Party.

Several Code Pink activists were also on hand. Some carried signs calling Trump a racist, while another wore a massive paper mache mask in the semblance of Trump, dollar bills spilling from his pockets and moneybags clenched in his hands. 

A single Trump supporter took a spot on the sidewalk and sang hymns, breaking from time to time only to blow on his shofar. The Code Pink crowd ambled down to drown him out. He blew harder into the shofar.

A single bagpiper roamed the scene, attracting a crowd when he stopped to play. He claimed to be making no political statements, only that he wanted to play music that might bring some beauty to a volatile scene. 

From the Metro station just across the street, Capitol Hill staffers lingered with other unsuspecting commuters, absorbing the scene with camera phones held high.

Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.), a liberal Memphis Democrat, was among the spectators enthralled by the spectacle. Of the shofar player he offered, "This guy thinks it's Passover." Of the rest he said, "I'm just gonna watch the show." 

Five minutes later, he was gone.

Republican leaders all offered a rosy take on the day's events, with Trump and Ryan issuing a joint statement vowing both are “totally committed to working together” to unite the GOP as the primary season shifts to the general election fight against the Democrats. 

“While we were honest about our few differences, we recognize that there are also many important areas of common ground,” they said.

McConnell offered a similar verdict, saying his meeting was “constructive.”

The Democrats, meanwhile, were divided about how to spin the GOP's first stab at unification under Trump. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference The Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  MORE, the Democratic presidential front-runner, issued a statement highlighting the fact that Ryan declined to endorse the billionaire businessman. 

“Republicans are continuing to acknowledge that a President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE would be too big a risk,” her statement reads.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a different take, blasting a fundraising email under the subject heading, “Ryan embraces Trump.”

“[Y]ou guessed it: Paul Ryan changed his mind and is now ready to work with Trump,” the email says.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who chaired the Democratic National Convention in 2008, also weighed in, expressing a sense of relief that she never had to manage a presidential nomination process as messy as the one Ryan now confronts. 

“We were never faced with something like that,” Pelosi said Thursday.