Donald Trump arrives Thursday on Capitol Hill for a Republican congressional confab that’s looking more like a showdown than a kumbaya moment for the party’s presumed presidential nominee.
Billed as an opportunity to unify the GOP after a blistering primary season, the morning meet-and-greets will be anything but that.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has surprised many by refusing to endorse Trump. Their open friction led to speculation earlier this week that Ryan might not serve as chairman of the Republican National Convention this summer, though Trump said Wednesday morning he hoped Ryan would.
At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield have cautiously stepped into the Trump wing of the GOP.
“Look, this is a big-tent party,” Ryan said Wednesday morning after huddling with House Republicans, who are demanding their own session with Trump. “There is plenty of room for different policy disputes in this party. We come from different wings of the party. The goal here is to unify the various wings of the party around common principles so that we can go forward.”
Expectations are low, however, that the tête-à-tête will have much influence over Trump’s reality-TV-style showmanship or result in any consequential pivots in his policies.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said Wednesday morning on Fox. “If we make a deal, that will be great. And if we don’t, we will trench forward like I’ve been doing and winning, you know, all the time.”
In both substance and style, the political gulf between the party’s nominee and its leaders in Congress is so vast on core policy issues it may prove too difficult to bridge.
Trump’s flip-flops on abortion, opposition to trade deals and shifting stances on taxes, minimum wage and the use of torture against terror suspects have sent shudders through the party establishment. He strays too far from Republican orthodoxy for Ryan, a think-tank-bred conservative, and edges too close to progressive Democrats for more traditional partisans.
Trump ally Ben Carson, the former presidential candidate, called Ryan this week to help lay the groundwork for Thursday’s chat. But Trump’s backers say the onus is on Washington Republicans to fall in line behind the new leader, whose brash style has won widespread voter appeal.
“Trump is not going to change his fundamental campaign themes. He believes in what he says, and the people have ratified it,” said Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who endorsed Trump early on and believes Ryan erred by not getting on board after Trump emerged last week as the likely nominee.
“I think he made a mistake, and I’m not sure what was in his mind,” Sessions said of Ryan. “I think that can be repaired.”
That congressional leaders are so split over Trump reflects not only the broader shake-up in the Republican Party, but also the strategic approaches Ryan and McConnell are taking to save their congressional majorities in the uncharted political terrain that is the Trump era.
By declining to quickly endorse Trump, Ryan gave shelter to those in the House GOP majority who want to distance themselves from Trump this fall — either because their districts are more moderate or because their more conservative, religious tilt puts them at odds with the New York businessman.
At the same time, McConnell’s acceptance of Trump begins to normalize his candidacy — “take the sting out,” as one observer put it — in a way that can be helpful to Republican senators up for reelection in states where they must appeal to a broader number of voters.
“I think most of our members believe that he’s won the nomination the old-fashioned way. He got more votes than anybody else,” McConnell said. “And we respect the voices of the Republican primary voters across the country.”
For Ryan, in particular, pressure is mounting that he back Trump — he earlier had promised to support the eventual nominee — even though he is perhaps among those most at odds with Trump’s brand of Republican ideology.
Just last week, Ryan outlined what he wanted to see from Trump to earn his support — conservative policies and a more inclusive tone. Earlier, he criticized Trump’s plan to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. But he appeared resigned Wednesday to simply “getting to know” the presumed nominee.
“The speaker has allowed himself to be boxed in, while McConnell has taken some of the sting out by suggesting Trump is someone they can do business with,” said Jim Manley, a Democrat and former aide to Senate leadership.
“Implicit is that Donald Trump is going to come around to a more palatable series of views,” he said. “That’s a potentially very dangerous game.”
Tensions could be felt on Capitol Hill this week as typically chatty lawmakers bristled at the mention of Trump.
“I’m not doing any interviews on the presidential race. None. Zero,” said the usually affable Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho).
“This is not a situation where the Congress just takes orders from the president,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip.
“It’s just natural we’re going to engage with him, find out where there’s commonality and where we can work together,” Cornyn said. “There may well — sounds like will — be some areas of difference, and that’s fine.”
Others, though, were eager for Trump’s arrival — the House Freedom Caucus hoped for its own session — even as they acknowledged differences.
Republican Rep. Chris Collins, for example, was an early Trump backer, but disagrees with Trump’s plan to deport nearly 12 million immigrants here illegally.
“These are the details,” said Collins, who represents western New York and believes Ryan and Trump will find common ground. “I am confident, knowing both individuals, they’re going say: ‘You know what? We agree on 100% of the top-line principles.’ ”
“I didn’t hear [Ryan] say anything that would suggest that he doesn’t want to — or that there is a big gap to close,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), after the morning meeting with Ryan. “He’s not a never-Trump person.”
For the latest from Congress and the 2016 campaign, follow @LisaMascaro.