WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan met face to face for the first time Thursday as they sought to repair their breach and unify a party torn over Trump’s rise to the cusp of the GOP presidential nomination.
The much-anticipated meeting unfolded Thursday morning as polls suggest Republican voters are getting behind Trump, who effectively clinched the nomination last week. GOP lawmakers are increasingly calling for the party to end its embarrassing bout of infighting and unite to beat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in November, and many want to see Ryan get on board.
“The meeting was great,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted after. “It was a very positive step toward party unity.” Priebus attended the opening meeting with the two before Trump and Ryan sat down with a small group of GOP House leaders.
Trump entered the RNC building, the venue a few blocks from the Capitol, through a side door as about a dozen protesters who oppose his immigration positions demonstrated at the front, chanting “Down, down with deportation. Up, up with liberation.” They tried to deliver a cardboard coffin to the RNC representing the suffering of immigrants under GOP policies and what they say will be the death of the party under Trump. They were not allowed inside.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas walked by and remarked that Trump is “tearing people apart. You can see the circus out here. He’s just bad for the country.”
Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, a Trump supporter, said it will help both the candidate and the speaker if they can work through their differences.
“I don’t think it’s do or die, any endorsement in particular,” he said outside the building. But “Donald Trump’s candidacy is strengthened with an endorsement from the most powerful person, top-ranking Republican in the country. It helps.”
Before the meeting, Ryan insisted party unity was his goal. A week earlier, he refused to endorse Trump, a slight that the billionaire said “blindsided” him.
“We come from different wings of the party,” Ryan said Wednesday. “The goal here is to unify the various wings of the party around common principles, so that we can go forward to unify it.”
On the eve of the meetings, Trump eased his defiant tone of recent days. Asked on Fox News who leads the party in his view, he said Ryan. “I would say Paul for the time being and maybe for a long time,” he said.
“We can always have differences,” he said. “If you agree on 70 percent, that’s always a lot.”
The two men represent vastly different visions for the Republican Party, and whether they can come together may foretell whether the GOP will heal itself after a bruising primary season or face irrevocable rupture.
Trump, for years a registered Democrat, has offended women, Hispanics, and others while violating establishment party orthodoxy on numerous issues Ryan holds dear, from trade to wages to religious freedom. Ryan, a policy-focused conservative, insists the GOP must be a party of ideas, and has championed an agenda that has drawn Trump’s scorn by pushing cuts in Medicare and other government programs.
Indeed, a broader swath of Republican voters appears to be moving behind Trump, despite big-name holdouts such as Ryan, both former president Bushes and the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney. Romney went after Trump on Wednesday over his refusal thus far to release his taxes, calling it “disqualifying” and asserting that the only explanation must be “a bombshell of unusual size.”
Still, almost two in three Republican-leaning voters now view Trump favorably, compared with 31 percent who view him unfavorably, according to a national Gallup Poll taken last week. The numbers represent a near total reversal from Gallup’s survey in early March.
And on Capitol Hill, where Ryan has managed to remain popular since taking over as speaker in the fall, some Republicans made clear that they would like to see him come around to supporting Trump sooner rather than later.
Three meetings were on tap for Trump: the one with Ryan and the party chairman, then with Ryan joined by other senior House GOP leaders and one with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Senate Republicans.
McConnell was quick to embrace the mogul after he clinched the nomination and said this week that Trump is looking like he’ll be “very competitive” in November.
Many Republican lawmakers made clear that Clinton herself is Trump’s No. 1 ally when it comes to producing GOP unity. For these lawmakers, backing Trump is a no-brainer if the other choice is Clinton.
“This great nation cannot endure eight more years of Democrat control of the White House,” the GOP chairs of seven House committees wrote in a joint statement released Wednesday night by the Trump campaign. “It is paramount that we coalesce around the Republican nominee, Mr. Donald J. Trump.”
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a leading lawmaker and GOP leadership ally, predicted that “Hillary Clinton will unify Republicans like nobody’s business.”