Peacemaking goes awry as Donald Trump hits out at GOP senators

Republican tensions ignite as Trump turns on party’s lawmakers, calling one ‘a loser’

Donald Trump leaves a meeting with House Republicans at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington on Thursday. Photograph: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Donald Trump leaves a meeting with House Republicans at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington on Thursday. Photograph: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

 

A peacemaking summit meeting between Republican lawmakers and their renegade presidential nominee, Donald Trump, descended on Thursday into an extraordinary series of acrid exchanges, punctuated by Mr Trump’s threatening one Republican senator and deriding another as a “loser”.

Mr Trump arrived in the capital with hopes of courting sceptical House and Senate Republicans and mending his relationship with Senator Ted Cruz, his former rival for the nomination, in a blitz of face-to-face meetings. But the friendly atmosphere turned fraught when Mr Trump lashed out in the face of direct criticism.

The tension reflects the lingering fissures in a Republican Party that continues to grapple with Mr Trump as its standard-bearer, and underscores Mr Trump’s limitations when it comes to unifying the party and moving beyond political grudges. He has disappointed some members of the party who had hoped his campaign would become more disciplined, but instead have seen him dwell on and even repeat his own missteps rather than maintaining a focused offensive against Hillary Clinton.

His private meeting on Thursday with 41 Senate Republicans, including some who have publicly criticised him repeatedly, grew acidly contentious, according to multiple lawmakers and other people present who insisted on anonymity to candidly recount the proceedings.

Mr Trump at one point jabbed at Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has openly called for a third-party candidate to thwart Mr Trump’s chances, asking Mr Sasse rhetorically if he preferred to have Ms Clinton as president. Mr Sasse did not respond in kind – but Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona did.

Attacks on judge

Mr Flake told him that he wanted to support Mr Trump, but could not because of Mr Trump’s statements about Mexican-Americans and attacks on a federal judge over his Hispanic descent. Mr Trump responded by saying that he had been going easy on Mr Flake so far, but that he would ensure that Mr Flake lost his re-election bid this year if the senator did not change his tune.

Dumbstruck, Mr Flake informed Mr Trump that he was not up for re-election this year. (After the meeting, Mr Sasse said through a spokesman that he still believed that, “with these two candidates, this election remains a Dumpster fire”.)

Mr Trump even aimed vitriol at a senator who did not show up, according to people who attended the meeting: Senator Mark S Kirk of Illinois, who recently withdrew his support for Mr Trump.

Mr Trump called Mr Kirk “dishonest” and a “loser” and suggested that Mr Kirk really wanted to support Mr Trump but was refusing to for political reasons, the attendees said. Mr Kirk is among the most embattled incumbent Republican senators seeking re-election in November.

Two aides to Mr Trump, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the meeting, insisted Mr Trump never used the word “loser” and that Mr Trump never threatened to harm Mr Flake’s electoral chances. In an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday afternoon, Mr Kirk shot back at Mr Trump, calling him an “eastern, privileged, wealthy bully”.

“Our bullies are made of better stuff in Illinois,” he said. “We’re much more practical and polite.”

Despite the tense exchanges, Mr Trump’s visit was not for naught. He met and managed to reach an accommodation with Mr Cruz, whom he had not seen since their ugly nomination battle ended in name-calling and personal insults in early May. The two were joined by Mr Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, along with Mr Cruz’s aides and Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman.

While there was no talk of an endorsement yet, Mr Trump invited Mr Cruz to speak at the party’s national convention in Cleveland and, according to Mr Cruz’s spokeswoman, Catherine Frazier, Mr Cruz accepted. Mr Cruz also agreed to counsel Mr Trump on future judicial nominations, Ms Frazier said.

A senior aide to Mr Trump said that as part of an agreement to give Mr Cruz a prominent speaking slot, Mr Cruz would not disrupt the proceedings of the nomination and the campaign would be able to review the speech before it was delivered.

Gruff tone

Some senators who attended the meeting said that it was largely cordial and thoughtful and played down Mr Trump’s occasionally gruff tone. “He didn’t defeat 16 opponents by parroting Republican establishment talking points,” said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of Mr Trump’s most stalwart supporters.

The broader meeting with Republican senators followed a more upbeat session with more than 200 Republican House members at the Capitol Hill Club. According to two lawmakers in attendance, the conversation was fairly subdued and focused on border security, the need to protect the Second Amendment and the high costs associated with the Affordable Care Act, the health law that Trump wants to repeal and replace.

Mr Trump also insisted that he could be trusted to pick conservative judges for the Supreme Court, thanks to the advice of the Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint, and warned about the fate of the bench in the hands of Ms Clinton, the lawmakers said.

As he did in a speech in Cincinnati on Wednesday, Mr Trump complained about the tough news coverage he has faced, particularly reports of his saying that he admired Saddam Hussein, and he bragged of his impressive performance in the primary elections.

Despite the recent protectionist tenor of his campaign, Mr Trump insisted that he was a devoted free trader and that he wanted to renegotiate deals with other countries so they favoured the United States. Although the House members did not confront Mr Trump about his policies, one did ask him how he could help the party maintain control of the Senate and the House, suggesting some concern about Republican losses in the House in the November elections.

Representative John Mica of Florida emerged from the meeting saying Mr Trump had been greeted favourably by House Republicans, who gave him “two or three” standing ovations while he was present.

Speaker Paul Ryan said the meeting was “great” during his weekly news conference and declined to discuss the controversy over Mr Trump’s recent Twitter post of a Star of David shape in an image suggesting that Ms Clinton was corrupt.

There were also signs of scepticism. Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said he could sense some hesitation in the room, his own included. Mr Kinzinger, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Mr Trump’s recent remarks about Saddam were not helpful. “I’m not a Never Trump guy, I’m a Republican – I want to support him,” he said. “But things like saying the Saddam Hussein comment are not helping me to get there.”

Protests

Mr Trump had praised Saddam Hussein at a campaign rally on Tuesday, saying he had done a good job of killing terrorists. Speaking to a packed auditorium here, he at first called Saddam, the former dictator of Iraq, a “really bad guy” before offering him brief plaudits.

“But you know what he did well?” Mr Trump said. “He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. It was over.” Moments later, he added that after Saddam’s country was destabilised by the 2003 invasion under President George W Bush, it became a breeding ground for terrorists. “Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism,” he continued. “You want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq. It’s like Harvard, Okay? So sad.”

Resistance to Mr Trump was also on display outside the meetings on Thursday. As the meeting with House Republicans was going on during a sweltering summer morning, a small cadre of protesters chanted “Dump Donald Trump!” from across the street. They waved signs with enlarged images of several lawmakers edited to wear Mr Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps.

Among the photographs, labelled the “Party of Trump” by the demonstrators, were Senators Patrick J Toomey of Pennsylvania, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio – vulnerable Republicans facing tough re-election fights who have been cautious about being tied too closely to their party’s polarising presidential nominee.

Asked if Republicans were becoming frustrated with Mr Trump’s meetings and speeches ending in controversy despite venues that should be friendly, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee paused and looked at the sky. “They end up being memorable,” he said.

New York Times