Senators arrived at their weekly lunch Tuesday prepared to witness a heavyweight bout between President Trump and Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerRepublicans, ideology, and demise of the state and local tax deduction Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force MORE (R-Tenn.). Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law There is a bipartisan path forward on election and voter protections Overnight Energy & Environment — Starting from 'scratch' on climate, spending bill MORE (R-N.C.) even brought popcorn.
But the meeting was largely free of turmoil, according to the senators who were in the room, though it included some memorable moments.
Corker’s name didn’t come up during the meeting, and the Tennessee senator didn’t use a question-and-answer session to confront Trump personally.
And unlike past presidents who have addressed Senate conferences, Trump actually sat down to eat with his fellow Republicans, digging into a meal of meatloaf followed by cherry pie.
“I’m really glad that the president came,” said Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Biden may get reprieve with gas price drop EPA proposes lowering past blending requirements for gasoline, rejecting waivers Overnight Defense & National Security — A new plan to treat Marines 'like human beings' MORE (R-Neb.), who sat with Trump at the head table and asked the president about tax cuts and emphasized her interest “in making sure that we have tax cuts for the middle class.”
Trump didn’t say anything to his other main Senate Republican critic, Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCruz to get Nord Stream 2 vote as part of deal on Biden nominees Democrats threaten to play hardball over Cruz's blockade Rubio vows to slow-walk Biden's China, Spain ambassador nominees MORE (Ariz.), either. And Flake refrained from taking on Trump in front of his colleagues.
Trump largely appeared interested in touting his accomplishments at the meeting, senators told The Hill.
He extolled the 70 bills he signed since taking office, assured Republican senators that he would deliver tax relief for middle-income families and reiterated that they must lower the corporate tax rate to 20 percent.
Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyLouisiana Democrat running for US Senate smokes marijuana in campaign ad MORE (R-La.) later described the tone of the room as “lighthearted” and “cordial.”
“I would say he spent most of his time talking about the importance of tax reform, and we talked about the importance of his nominations as well, but it was very cordial, he was very well received,” he said.
But other senators were less amused by the meeting, which they complained lacked substance and focus.
“He said the tax cuts are ‘going to be great,’ ” without going into any detail, said one GOP senator who requested anonymity to assess the meeting candidly.
“He just went on and on, talking about his accomplishments and going off on tangents. It was inane,” the lawmaker added.
But Trump’s critics mostly stayed silent, leaving the floor to colleagues who had more positive things to say to the president.
The GOP lawmaker said some of the questions to Trump were so effusive that it sparked the thought, “You’re not in his Cabinet, you don’t need to kiss up to him.”
One moment of challenge, however, came when Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsBiden remembers Dole as 'master of the Senate' at National Cathedral Bob Dole: heroic, prickly and effective McConnell gets GOP wake-up call MORE (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, raised his concerns about Trump’s handling of the North America Free Trade Agreement and the impact on farmers in his state if the administration pulls out of it.
Trump asked the senators to give him room to negotiate and promised they would be happy with the result.
“He basically asked us to give him room for negotiations,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law Lobbying world Republicans threaten floor takeover if Democrats weaken filibuster MORE (R-W.Va.), who added that Trump assured lawmakers, “I can negotiate a good deal.”
“He did say something about, ‘I might have to nullify to re-up,’ but I didn’t get specifically, exactly what he meant by that,” she added. “It was vague.”
While some GOP senators said they were not happy about talk of nullifying a major trade deal, others expressed hope it might lead to a better agreement.
“I think the president is using all the leverage he can in public discussion to hopefully bring about changes that have to take place,” said Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySmall ranchers say Biden letting them get squeezed These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Hillicon Valley — Senate panel advances major antitrust bill MORE (R-Iowa).
Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Negotiators report progress toward 2022 spending deal Johnson, Thune signal GOP's rising confidence MORE (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Banking Committee, pressed Trump on who he might appoint as the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, and expressed his preference that he replace Janet Yellen.
In response, Trump asked for a show of hands on whom senators would like to see as the next Federal Reserve chairman: Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell or Stanford University economist John Taylor.
“So nice being with Republican Senators today,” Trump tweeted Tuesday evening. “Multiple standing ovations! Most are great people who want big Tax Cuts and success for U.S.”
The relative calm inside the room was a stark contrast to the charged atmosphere in the halls of Congress on Tuesday.
The second floor of the Capitol was jam-packed with reporters and cameras waiting for Trump’s entrance, putting the police on high alert.
But even with the extra precautions, the president’s entrance was marred by a disturbance.
An activist named Ryan Clayton managed to slip into the crowd of waiting journalists and accosted Trump as he walked to lunch in the Mansfield Room. He threw miniature Russian flags at the president and shouted “treason.”
He was quickly arrested.
Ellen Mitchell and Niv Elis contributed.