Senate Republicans left a meeting with their party’s presumptive presidential nominee Thursday hoping that he will focus on policy.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., had a tense exchange with Trump during the meeting, in which Flake identified himself as “the other senator from Arizona — the one who didn’t get captured.”
In the exchange, first reported by the Washington Post and later confirmed by Flake to have taken place, Trump apparently threatened to work against Flake in 2016. Flake is not up for re-election this cycle.
One Republican senator, who asked not to be named in order to discuss details of the closed-door session, said Trump received a strong response to remarks about economic policy, overhauling the tax code and regulations.
Some were not in the mood to say anything to the media gathered outside the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Asked if senators had raised concerns about Trump’s rhetoric, which a number of Senate Republicans have criticized, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said, “I think there were people saying let’s just make sure that we’re projecting a unified image. Everybody’s totally committed to doing that.
Very seldom do you see a meeting where the vast majority of the conference shows up early and leaves late,” Tillis said. “Really, that’s probably the best indicator of whether it was a good meeting or not.
Others were a little more reluctant to share. Or be seen.
“I think that this was a great opportunity for him to spend time with members of Congress, and in a couple of weeks, the general election starts,” Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina said.
The Senate Intelligence chairman was one of several senators making use of a back exit of the NRSC’s building to avoid protesters and media in front. Several others, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio were also seen emerging from an alley next to the gas station on the Senate side of Capitol Hill.
Trump’s motorcade left the meeting around 12:15 p.m. Sen. Ted Cruz was also spotted leaving the meeting a few minutes afterwards in a large black SUV.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus joined Cruz and Trump for a separate session following the meeting with the conference, a person familiar with the meeting confirmed.
Tillis said Trump’s daughter Ivanka attended the meeting and spoke to senators individually after it concluded. He said she was “very impressive”
Trump’s meeting with Republican senators followed what was described as an “exuberant” session with House Republicans earlier in the morning.
Trump’s visit came as Republicans fight to preserve their control over the Senate and avoid handing the role of majority leader next year to New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer.
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NRSC Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who estimated there were about 40 senators at the meeting, said they did not discuss the possibility of Trump campaigning for incumbent senators.
Tillis said he raised a question about GOP senators acting as surrogates for Trump on policy positions, noting they have the ability explain policies in detail in their respective states, and that Trump’s response was “very positive.”
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, one of Trump’s loudest critics among Senate Republicans, said he had a “gracious exchange” with the presumptive GOP nominee but that nothing had changed in how he felt.
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“Mr. Sasse continues to believe that our country is in a bad place and, with these two candidates, this election remains a dumpster fire. Nothing has changed,” his office said in a statement.
Senate GOP leaders have not been shy about criticizing Trump, even when saying they would support the Republican Party’s choice for president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was most succinct about it in an interview with Time Warner Cable News.
“Trump clearly needs to change, in my opinion, to win the general election,” the Kentucky Republican said. “What I’ve said to him both publicly and privately: ‘You’re a great entertainer. You turn on audiences. You’re good before a crowd. You have a lot of Twitter followers. That worked fine for you in the primaries. But now that you are in the general, people are looking for a level of seriousness that is typically conveyed by having a prepared text and Teleprompter and staying on message.'”
While McConnell is perhaps the best politician in America when it comes to message discipline, Trump has proven to be something else entirely.
A GOP senator said that those concerns were part of the subtext of the meeting, with senators hoping Trump will focus on national and economic security, rather than veering off on tangents.
And in speeches Tuesday in North Carolina and Wednesday in Ohio, both of which should be swing states, Trump veered far from what should have been an easy GOP script: criticizing presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton about her use of email.
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Trump ended up having to defend himself from attacks, from outside observers and the Clinton campaign, about comments he made about the effectiveness of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein when it came to killing terrorists.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who was campaigning with Trump in North Carolina when he praised Saddam, said Trump “did a good job” responding to various questions.
“I think people left there feeling positive about his campaign. I really do,” Corker said.
Some vulnerable GOP incumbents in targeted races skipped the meeting, citing scheduling conflicts. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., for instance, pointed to an Armed Services Committee hearing on the status of NATO, Russia and the security of Europe.
When it comes to foreign policy, there might be no stronger contrast between attending a hearing about the alliance and a meeting with Trump, who has been critical of NATO and gone so far as to call it, “obsolete.”