With less than two weeks to go before the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump met Thursday with House Republicans, some of whom are still anxious about his tone as the presumptive GOP nominee.
But many members said they left the closed-door meeting at the Capitol Hill Club with a good feeling.
“It was actually probably Donald Trump at his best,” said New York Rep. Peter T. King, who’s been critical of Trump in the past.
King had been expecting “some tough talk back and forth,” but said the meeting was positive overall.
“There was no negative moment, no awkward moment,” the Long Island congressman said.
Trump’s meeting comes on the heels of a Wednesday night speech that may have exasperated Republicans already concerned about the temper and tone of their nominee.
Speaking in Cincinnati, Trump defended his campaign’s use of a symbol seen as anti-Semitic and reiterated his praise for the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s terror-fighting tactics .
Lawmakers emerging from the meeting said that Trump brought up his comments about the former Iraqi dictator, who was executed in 2006, and blamed the media for taking them out of context.
“He went to some efforts to try to put it in context, which was appreciated,” Arizona Rep. David Schweikert said.
“He expresses himself privately in a way that allays a lot of concerns about what he says publicly,” said fellow Arizona Rep. Trent Franks.
That may have been the predominating opinion coming out of the meeting — members liked what they heard from Trump even if they haven’t always liked what they’ve heard from him on the stump.
But the other big controversy that’s consumed the Trump campaign for the last couple of days did not come up, according to multiple members who were in the room.
Trump tweeted an image Saturday that included a six-pointed star — reminiscent of a Star of David — next to a photo of Hillary Clinton, overlaying piles of money. Trump did not raise the issue, nor did any members ask him about it.
Appearing with Trump were his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who’s been an important player in his father-in-law’s campaign. Trump was introduced by CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, who’d been mulling a bid for Senate earlier this year from Connecticut.
Trump walked into the back entrance to the club about 20 minutes late for the 8:30 a.m. meeting. Protesters across the street from the venue chanted, “Donald Trump, go away! Racist, sexist, anti-gay!”
They carried large signs with the heads of Sens. Rob Portman, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Patrick J. Toomey, Ron Johnson, Kelly Ayotte, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, all wearing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” caps.
Democrats are working hard to tie vulnerable Republicans in tough re-election fights to Trump.
North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows described the gathering inside as “standing-room only.”
The presumptive nominee took questions for about 40 minutes from 20 different members.
Most of the questions were policy-focused, said New York Rep. Lee Zeldin. But the GOP nominee also spoke at length about electoral strategy.
Trump said his campaign will put blue states like Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio and Connecticut in play, King said. There was “a lot of talk,” King added, of combining Trump’s operation with that of congressional Republicans.
Even some of this year’s most vulnerable Republicans said they liked what they heard.
Nevada Rep. Cresent Hardy, rated by Roll Call as the second most vulnerable incumbent in the House, said he was satisfied with what he heard from Trump about helping Republicans hold his district, which leans Democratic at the presidential level.
Iowa Rep. Rod Blum, who topped the Roll Call list of the most vulnerable House incumbents, said Trump had a good message on jobs and economy to help him carry his distinct.
Asked if members raised concerns in the meeting, Blum said. “No, actually. I was surprised.”
New York Rep. Chris Collins, one of the first in Congress to endorse the billionaire mogul, sounded buoyant, describing the atmosphere as “supercharged — one standing ovation after another.”
Even Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who had been critical of Trump and his campaign message over the weekend, said the meeting went well and that the presumptive nominee spoke about unifying the party.
“What I thought was especially helpful today was our members just got access and got to ask their questions,” Ryan said at a press conference Thursday.
Asked if House Republicans discussed their “A Better Way” agenda and whether Trump endorsed it, Ryan said they discussed elements of it quite a bit.
“We clearly have a presumptive nominee who wants to work with us on moving this agenda forward,” he said.
But not all members are on board with Trump yet, and the meeting didn’t get them there.
South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford left the meeting saying he still has concerns about the nominee, mostly about his “tenor and tone.” Sanford acknowledged that Trump was trying to tone it down a bit Thursday to appeal to Congress.
The congressman said it was a “necessary meeting,” but part of a still longer, ongoing conversation.
In particular, some members still had reservations about Trump’s comments about the late Iraqi dictator.
“Look, I’m not a ‘Never Trump’ guy,” Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger said. Kinzinger said he wants to support his party’s nominee but that Thursday’s meeting didn’t push him any closer toward that.
“Things like saying the Saddam Hussein comment are not helping me to get there,” Kinzinger said.
“It’s awkward. It’s really awkward. There’s a lack of enthusiasm, you can feel it,” he added.
Indiana Rep. Todd Young, who is running for the Senate, was seen emerging from the club later, but he said he was meeting there with friends and wouldn’t acknowledge being at the Trump meeting.
Just as some members have said they don’t plan to attend the convention, some said ahead of time they would skip Thursday’s meeting.
There were far fewer demonstrators on Thursday than when Trump came to the Hill in May to meet with Ryan and other GOP leaders. Capitol Police also had the area directly around the club blocked off to bystanders, where a few months ago there were TV cameras and reporters surrounding the club and overflowing into the street.
Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee were spotted leaving the meeting early to prepare for their hearing with FBI Director James B. Comey on the Clinton email investigation.
Trump was to head to the National Republican Senatorial Committee to convene with Senate Republicans after his House GOP meeting.