As Donald Trump and Paul Ryan approached their big meeting with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, a key detail had been worked out ahead of time: Who, besides the principals, would be in the room?
It was agreed that each man would be allowed a single aide. Trump tapped Paul Manafort, his D.C. fixer, and Ryan chose Kevin Seifert, his political director.
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But when the big session was set to begin — after Trump and Ryan had met privately with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus — the New York billionaire suddenly allowed a flock of his campaign advisers inside.
So Ryan invited in several of his own top hands.
The rapprochement between the GOP’s presumed standard-bearer and its top elected official — assuming that’s what this is — is clearly a work in progress. The two are on separate planets, ideologically and temperamentally, and one much-hyped morning summit was never going to produce some magical mind-meld.
But now — after a get-together that was described by sources as pleasant, productive, even interesting — Trump and Ryan are waltzing toward “unity,” or something approaching it.
The two teams are beginning a slate of policy discussions to explore their positions on key issues. They might not find agreement on some issues, but they hope they can lock arms on broad principles that will drive the election.
Ryan and Trump will meet again. And House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers extended an invitation to Trump to speak to the entire House GOP.
Trump accepted, but a date hasn’t been set.
Indeed, Ryan and Trump are beginning to move gingerly toward a political marriage neither of them chose, and it’s not clear how or whether it will work. It’s all but inevitable that, at some point in the next eight weeks, before the Republican convention in Cleveland in July that the speaker is slated to preside over, Ryan will, in some way, endorse Trump.
The dominoes are beginning to fall around Ryan. His two deputies — Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — are both Trump supporters. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden — the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee — backed Trump Thursday shortly after the Ryan-Trump confab ended. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already given Trump his support, even if it wasn’t exactly a full-throated endorsement.
Yet Ryan and Trump will never truly be kindred spirits. Trump, not a master of minutiae, has turned Ryan’s party on its head, blowing up long-held policy convictions and upending a political order that had been intact for decades. For his part, Ryan has spent the past two decades crawling to the top of that heap while becoming a master of arcane policy fights.
Whether the two can pull off the awkward dance they commenced Thursday over the next six months is still to be seen. But they’re trying, at least publicly.
“Look, it’s no secret that Donald Trump and I had our differences — we talked about those differences today,” Ryan said in the Capitol after his meetings with Trump. “The question is, ‘What do we need to do to unify … the Republican Party?’ … Can we unify around our common principals to offer the country a compelling and clear choice… to get us on a better track? And I am very encouraged we can put that together.”
Ryan added, “This is a first meeting. I was encouraged by this meeting, but this is a process. It takes time. You don’t put this together in 45 minutes … I want to make sure we truly understand each other. And again, I am very encouraged.”
Ryan’s goal on Thursday was to get Trump to understand what he — and, by extension House Republicans — care about.
The speaker even brought charts and slides illustrating the nation’s budget woes to help Trump understand the problem he has spent 20 years trying to solve.
They discussed abortion, the power of the presidency, federal regulations and Ryan’s decades-long obsession: the nation’s fiscal health.
As they sat in the Republican National Committee’s headquarters on Capitol Hill, with protesters yelling and music playing outside, Ryan spoke, and Trump mostly listened and nodded. The meeting was positive, according to multiple sources who were present, and Trump agreed — at least in principle — with all of what the House Republican leaders said. Each of the GOP leaders spoke and talked about their own priorities.
“He was very much in listening mode,” a Republican leadership aide said of Trump. “He was very pleasant, very nice. He mostly wanted to hear what we had to say.”
Trump also huddled with McConnell and members of the Senate Republican leadership, all of whom have publicly committed to supporting the New York businessman. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first GOP senator to endorse Trump, also took part in the meeting.
“We had a very good meeting. Very good, constructive meeting,” McConnell told reporters. “We talked about a variety of things, both campaign related and issues.”
With 24 Senate Republican seats up this fall — compared with only 10 Democratic-held seats — there has been deep concern among GOP incumbents about fallout from a Trump-led ticket in November. Trump met privately with Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Sharon Soderstrom, McConnell’s top aide, to discuss what he could to help in those races.
As Republicans are trying to present a unified front, Democrats are trying to go on offense. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) bashed Trump and Ryan during a news conference, while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) launched into what has become a daily tirade against the GOP’s presumptive nominee, lambasting him for misogynistic comments made in the past.
“Since Sen. McConnell has so enthusiastically embraced Trump, you can only assume he agrees with Trump’s view that women are dogs and pigs,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “You can only assume the Republican leader is not repulsed by Donald Trump’s vulgar behavior towards women.”