For six days straight, Republican senators had publicly rallied to the defense of their longtime colleague battling cancer, Sen. John McCain, who was the target of a crass joke by a White House aide calling him irrelevant because “he's dying anyway.”
“I’ve said how I feel about the comment about Senator McCain. It was unconscionable. I think everybody involved should apologize,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) as he exited the lunch held at the U.S. Capitol. “But this was a policy meeting, right? It was policy-driven.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has had his own personal spats with Trump, added: “That’s not what we do in those meetings.”
The episode illustrated how reluctant most Republicans have become about directly challenging Trump, whose approval numbers have ticked up recently amid encouraging economic signs and a scheduled summit with North Korea. Trump is also viewed as a critical asset as the GOP seeks to retain House and Senate majorities in November.
The remark about McCain last week by communications aide Kelly Sadler have been condemned by numerous Senate Republicans. “It doesn’t matter; he’s dying anyway,” Sadler said of McCain’s opposition to the administration’s CIA director nominee, according to participants in a White House staff meeting.
But many senators have also said that McCain, who has been absent from Washington since December as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer, would be unlikely to get an apology from the notably unapologetic White House.
“I know it’s probably not their style to make apologies,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Tuesday. “But I can tell you that I think the vast majority of Americans would say John McCain deserves our respect, and that’s from the top to the bottom.”
Senate Republicans were also reluctant to raise other issues with Trump, even on policies where they’ve diverged from the president.
GOP lawmakers have been particularly critical when it comes to Trump’s protectionist tendencies on trade, decrying the administration’s moves to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports as well as warning Trump against withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But no one challenged Trump on his trade policies on Tuesday. Instead, Trump assured Republican senators that he was dedicated to securing better trade deals, including regarding NAFTA, according to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
Senior GOP officials have also raised concerns about Trump’s surprise disclosure Sunday that he has ordered his administration to rescue ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications company that the U.S. government had punished for violating sanctions involving North Korea and Iran.
Top Senate Republicans signaled in advance of the lunch that they would raise that issue with Trump, but the topic never came up, according to multiple senators in attendance. Trump spoke for about 45 minutes, senators said, leaving little time for a question-and-answer session at the end.
Just two senators spoke following Trump, according to senators: Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) raised the topic of immigration and also discussed his trip to Jerusalem to attend the opening of the U.S. Embassy there, while Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) talked up the party’s accomplishments.
Indeed, Trump’s visit with Senate Republicans comes during a relatively calm time in the relationship between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. In private, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has urged the president to work with him to support electable Republicans this fall, and Trump has eagerly seized the chance to go on the attack against vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection, much to the GOP’s delight.
Inside the lunch, Trump expressed confidence in the prospects of flipping the Senate seat in West Virginia held by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III while proclaiming that he loves the state so much he may want to move there someday, Kennedy said. Trump appeared eager to take digs at Manchin, telling senators how much the Democratic senator loves the president and hugs him when he sees him, according to a person briefed on the lunch.
GOP Senate candidate Mike Braun, who will face off against Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) this fall, was also in attendance, with Trump talking up his prospects in November. As he had during a rally in Elkhart, Ind., last week, Trump derided Donnelly as “Sleepin’ Joe,” according to two people familiar with the lunch meeting.
His remarks were wide-ranging, senators said, veering among the economy, North Korea, Iran and his midterms outlook. Trump also pressed senators to provide him money for a border wall and said he will have more to say on his plans for health care in the coming weeks.
The president also thanked Senate Republicans for their well-wishes for his wife, Melania, who was hospitalized Monday for a “benign kidney condition” at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Trump then noted her high poll numbers and quipped that he has asked the first lady not to run against him, one person briefed on the lunch said.
The president was “in a celebratory mood,” McConnell told reporters following the lunch. He “seemed to be in an upbeat mood heading into the fall.”
Trump’s confab Tuesday inside the ornate Mansfield Room at the Capitol is the third time he has addressed Senate Republicans as president in their weekly Tuesday luncheon. And it’s not the first time that an intensely personal fight between the administration and a Republican senator has overshadowed a show of unity that Republicans preferred to project.
Before his meeting with Senate Republicans in October, Trump and Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, had been locked in a weeks-long feud, with Corker accusing Trump of “debasing” the country just hours before Trump arrived at the Capitol for lunch.
But as with the Trump-McCain rift this week, the Trump-Corker feud never came up during the October gathering.
Erica Werner, Sean Sullivan, Paul Kane and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.