Donald Trump made strides to quell doubts over his candidacy among congressional Republicans on Thursday, but deep divisions remained just two weeks before the party’s national convention, where he’s expected to be anointed the GOP’s presidential standard bearer.
In closed-door meetings with members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Trump and his allies Thursday sought to build party unity. He met with former rival Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who accepted a Trump invitation to speak at the Cleveland convention.
But Cruz stopped short of endorsing Trump, and Trump’s meeting with other Republican senators was described as tense. He clashed with several who expressed deep skepticism about his candidacy.
When Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona openly criticized Trump for the candidate’s attacks on fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the two had words. Flake told reporters afterward that despite wanting to support his party’s nominee, he just can’t.
“My position remains, I want to support the nomination. I really do,” Flake said. “I just can’t support him given the things that he’s said.”
Other senators said Trump was openly dismissive of senators who didn’t support him. He labeled as “a loser” Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who faces a tough re-election fight and said last month that he couldn’t support Trump. Trump vowed to win Illinois in November, despite the fact it has voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections.
Kirk, who was not at the meeting, scoffed at Trump’s characterization, saying he’s never been defeated but that Trump was likely to lose Illinois “like Alan Keyes,” a reference to the Republican who captured just 27 percent of the vote in Illinois’ 2004 U.S. Senate race against Barack Obama.
Trump, who was disdainful of the GOP leadership as he chalked up primary victories, has struggled to galvanize party support amid worries that he’s too unpredictable and has squandered opportunities to bash presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by engaging in self-inflicted controversies. There is still an active movement to deny Trump the nomination at the convention.
But political analysts said Trump would need the party’s campaign apparatus to defeat Clinton, and Thursday’s meetings were intended to give members of Congress a chance to get a different view of the bombastic campaigner.
“Once people get to know him they’ll have a different view of who he is,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who appeared with Trump in North Carolina earlier this week but has taken himself out of vice presidential consideration. He said lawmakers were able “to develop an understanding of Trump” at the meeting.
“When you just see snippets on TV or online out of a 60-minute speech people get a very different impression,” Corker said.
Trump spoke briefly and took questions, and apparently little was said about recent controversies, including his decision to stand by the use of the Star of David in an anti-Hillary Clinton meme that appeared in the candidate’s Twitter feed. Republicans have fretted that the tweet and Trump’s defense of it have drawn attention from revelations about Clinton’s email practices.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said the senators also did not talk about Trump’s tone, which has unnerved many Republicans. But Scott said, “From my perspective, I think we’ve been making progress in the right direction. I think we’ve seen the process of unification start.”
At an earlier meeting with about 200 House Republicans, Trump was accompanied by his daughter Ivanka and was introduced by CNBC host Larry Kudlow. Some Republicans said Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has been critical of some of Trump’s statements and actions, bantered and joked.
Like Trump’s Senate supporters, Trump’s backers in the House said the meeting offered skeptics a chance to listen to Trump firsthand.
“There are a lot of things people are going to learn about Trump, and they are going to be very, very pleased,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who endorsed Trump in May. He said Trump thinks “there is a lack of fairness about showing him the way he truly is, and crowds, when they are around him, I think, come away with a different impression.”
But House lawmakers also steered clear of Trump’s Star of David controversy and his vice-presidential search. Two prospects, Tennessee’s Corker and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, have taken themselves out of the running.
It was clear Trump’s appearance was not fully persuasive. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said he still had concerns about Trump’s mastery of details.
“He can be fairly casual with facts,” Sanford said. “Facts matter in the deliberation of ideas. At times, what concerns those of us who come from a policy background is in the way he’s loose with facts.”
Sanford said he also remained alarmed by some of Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail. “The idea of saying, ‘Go ahead. I wish I could hit you in the face,’ or ‘If you want, I’ll pay your legal fees,’ that’s new territory,” he said of Trump’s remarks at campaign events to supporters reacting to protesters. “I think that’s amazingly dangerous and alarming territory in the 21st century.”
Sanford, however, said the prospect of the next president having up to three Supreme Court picks was likely to persuade Trump’s detractors to back him.
“If you care about the composition of the court, that alone will push you there,” he said.
Trump also addressed the controversy he’d sparked by seeming to praise the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during a campaign appearance in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tennessee, said Trump complained that the news media had twisted his words.
“He was a bad guy – really bad guy,” Trump had said. “But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.”
DesJarlais said Trump sought to clarify that he wasn’t seeking to praise the strongman: “He was using him as an example.”
“Trump has a unique lack of filter when he speaks,” DesJarlais said. “He’s often left having people explain what he meant, not what he said.”
Ryan earlier this week told Fox News that Saddam was “one of the 20th century’s most evil people” and that he had committed mass genocide against his own people using chemical weapons. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said Trump’s Saddam comments left him cold.
“It was awkward. It was really awkward,” Kinzinger said. “I’m not a ‘never Trump’ guy. I’m a Republican; I want to support the nominee, ultimately. But things like the Saddam Hussein comment are not helping me get there.”
“There was a lack of enthusiasm. You could feel it,” Kinzinger added.
Trump considered the day a success, tweeting as he left that he had held “great” meetings.
Democrats sought to take advantage of the Capitol Hill meeting, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rolling out what it called an “unprecedented seven-figure national advertising campaign” targeting GOP lawmakers including California Reps. Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Darrell Issa.
“If your Republican representative supports Trump, should they be representing you?” one of the ads asks. They are set to air on cable television and the internet beginning Monday.
A few dozen protesters stood across the street from the House meeting, holding poster-sized digitally altered images of Ryan and vulnerable Republican senators such as Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire wearing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” caps.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Rep. Scott DesJarlais.
Michael Doyle, Megan Henney and Eleanor Mueller contributed to this report.