Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan struck a conciliatory tone after meeting in Washington Thursday, seeking to ease tensions that flared last week when Ryan said he is not ready to endorse the business mogul in his bid for the White House.
“While we were honest about our few differences, we recognize that there are also many important areas of common ground,” Trump and Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a joint statement shortly after their meeting at the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill. “We will be having additional discussions, but remain confident there’s a great opportunity to unify our party and win this fall, and we are totally committed to working together to achieve that goal.”
Despite the positive tone of the statement, Ryan is still not committing to supporting Trump as the party’s nominee, although he said he was “encouraged” by their conversation Thursday.
“It’s no secret that Donald Trump and I have had our differences. We talked about those differences today,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill later in the morning. “The question is what is it that we need to do to unify the Republican Party and all strains of conservative wings of the party. It was important that we discussed our differences that we have, but it was also important that we discuss the core principles that tie us together.”
Ryan said the next step is to drill down on policy differences to find commonalities, adding that their “policy teams” were going to meet to “work through the details.”
“Going forward we’re going to go a little deeper in the policy weeds to make sure we have a better understanding of one another,” he said.
Ryan called unifying the party “a process” and said it would “take some time” before it comes together.
“I don’t want us to have a fake unification process here,” he said. “I want to make sure that we really and truly understand each other.”
Trump’s face-to-face with Ryan was the first of several high-profile sit downs with Republican leaders that come as the campaign seeks to unite the party — and its resources — ahead of a competitive general election. The speaker described the meeting with the former reality TV star, who he admitted he doesn’t know very well, as a “pleasant exchange.”
“He’s a very warm and genuine person…we really don’t know each other and we started to get to know each other,” Ryan said.
The summit between Ryan and Trump was cast as an opportunity to soothe tensions between Trump and the GOP establishment at a pivotal moment for a party sharply divided over the likely nominee’s unorthodox and controversial campaign.
The day of meetings began at 9 a.m. when Trump met with Ryan and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, after which he met with the full House GOP leadership team.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Priebus tweeted out that the meeting was “great.”
The meeting was great. It was a very positive step toward party unity.
— Reince Priebus (@Reince) May 12, 2016
“They had very good chemistry between the two of them,” he said later on CNN. “It was positive and it was give and take. If anyone was a fly on the wall, they would agree with what I’m saying.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that during their meeting with Trump, House leaders ran through a long list of policy issues, including the national debt, foreign affairs and issues of particular concern to the lawmakers in the room. McCarthy, for example, brought up California’s water crisis.
Both McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said they thought there was plenty of room for agreement with Trump.
McCarthy noted House Republicans are working on a series of policy proposals they can take to voters this fall and said they specifically discussed their work on tax reform — an issue Trump has highlighted.
“I think when you talk about ideas, you talk about vision, that’s a perfect place for people to unite,” he said.
McCarthy said other topics raised, included veterans’ issues and “the overreach of agencies.”
Trump left the RNC shortly before 11 a.m., waving at reporters from the back seat of his black suburban as he headed to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his top associates.
In the roughly 75-minute meeting with Senate Republican leadership, Trump listened as the senators took their turns raising issues of concern that had come up in his raucous campaign.
According to more than a half-dozen participants, the meeting was cordial and lacked any of the tension from the previous huddle with Ryan’s team as none of those senators had expressed the same reservations as the House speaker.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) raised policy concerns and while she declined to specify which ones, Trump’s positions on taxes, trade and entitlement programs have so far all run counter to where a majority of Senate Republicans stand.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 in GOP leadership, told reporters he raised “the issue of tone” in relation to how the candidate could better attract Latino voters. This has been a major concern for Republicans in Washington, who fear that Trump’s antagonistic statements – he labeled Mexicans who come across the border as “rapists” the day he launched his campaign a year ago – will drive Hispanic voters deeper into the Democratic column and make it impossible to win a national campaign.
“I’ll be glad to share with you my experience and observations, because obviously that’s an important part of the voters in 2016,” Cornyn said he told Trump, noting that he won a majority of Latino voters in Texas during his 2014 re-election contest.
Additionally, the Senate leaders talked brass tacks about their campaigns ahead and agreed that in some cases Republicans are going to run away from Trump and his proposals.
“He looked forward to being helpful where he could,” Cornyn said, noting that some states might be more amenable to Trump policies. “He also understands that some places, people may choose to run independently and not join up with the presidential.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), considered one of the more vulnerable Republicans seeking reelection this year, said “it was a good listening session – it really was, on both sides.”
Portman flatly rejected any speculation he would want to be Trump’s running mate.
“No,” was his quick response when asked by a reporter.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the most senior Senate Republican, was the most enthusiastic about the meeting.
“Yes, I totally endorse him,” Hatch said. “We want him to win and we want him to be the next president.”
He waved off reporters’ questions about whether Trump was on board with House and Senate Republicans’ agenda by pointing out that the discussion only lasted an hour.
“There were naturally questions raised that you might call criticism, but he handled them very well,” Hatch said.
“He’s a very, very bright guy,” he added. “He’s a very good guy.”
Trump’s trip to Washington became a spectacle in and of itself.
The streets outside Republican National Committee headquarters assumed a circus-like atmosphere Thursday morning with dozens of cameras staked out every entrance to the building, satellite trucks lined the nearby streets and passersby gawked at the spectacle.
At one point, a man wearing a portable megaphone and a papier mache Trump head walked down First Street SE carrying a brown paper sack with a dollar sign on it.
“The Donald has spoken, and the GOP is listening!” he shouted as photographers swarmed around him.
As he shook his bags of money and made campaign promises like giving all women free manicures and pedicures, Trump supporter Johnny Rice stood in front of him with a mega-horn and sang religious songs in an attempt to drown out the protester. He then switched to sounding a ram’s horn that he bought on eBay.
“Okay: Believe in spiritual or don’t believe in spiritual, God spoke to me and said that he was raising up Trump to trump the evil government of Obama,” said Rice, 48, who lives in Maryland.
The impetus for Trumps trip was the war of words between the Ryan and Trump camps that occurred last week after the speaker declared that he was “just not ready” to support Trump as the party nominee. Trump responded in a statement that he was not ready “to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda.” The comments highlighted the rifts that Trump will need to overcome in coming weeks as he seeks to unify the party.
At one point there was a question over whether Ryan would step down from his role as chairman of the Republican National Convention due to his differences with Trump. On Thursday, he indicated they had put that issue behind them.
“I am happy to serve in this capacity at the Republican convention,” he told reporters. “I would honor the decision of our presumptive nominee and he did express that preference.”
Trump and Ryan sought to distance themselves from their hostile exchange ahead of their sit down Thursday. Trump said Wednesday night that the purpose of the meeting with Ryan is “unity,” striking a conciliatory tone after the public spat and adding that the two are looking to get to know each other.
But tensions within the party over Trump have only worsened in the week since he effectively clinched the nomination following the departures of rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Former GOP nominee Mitt Romney, members of the Bush family and other top Republicans have declined to endorse Trump publicly. Romney, who ran in 2012 with Ryan as his running mate, blasted Trump on Wednesday for suggesting he would not release his tax returns until after the election.
The real estate mogul will need party resources behind his White House run if he hopes to run a competitive bid against likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
The Trump campaign is finalizing plans with the RNC to set up a joint fundraising committee — a “victory fund” — to solicit donations far larger in magnitude than what the campaign itself is legally allowed to accept. The additional funds are routed to the party’s war chest then used to finance national get-out-the-vote operations.
A chief worry among congressional Republicans is that Trump’s harsh rhetoric on immigration and his past disparaging comments about women will hurt GOP members in tight re-election battles this fall.
Sensing this blood in the water, congressional Democrats have eagerly attempted to portray Trump as the embodiment of what the Republican party has become.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted Republicans, and McConnell in particular, during a speech on the Senate floor Thursday morning.
“At some point in their conversation Donald Trump should thank the senior senator from Kentucky. Trump owes his candidacy to the Republican leader and to the policies that he’s led,” Reid said. “It was an obstructionist, anti-woman, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, anti-middle class, anti-environment and anti-Obama and anti-everything Republican Party of the last eight years that made Donald Trump a reality.”
But this line of attack runs somewhat counter to the message from the campaign of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, which has sought to court center-right Republicans who remain uneasy about voting for Trump in the fall by pointing out how unpopular he is even within his own party.
“Since Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president last Tuesday, the chorus of Republicans and conservative commentators from around the country rejecting his unpredictable, risky and divisive candidacy has grown daily,” the Clinton campaign blasted out in a statement as Trump met with Ryan.
Jenna Johnson, Karoun Demirjian, Paul Kane, Kelsey Snell and Sean Sullivan contributed to this story