Signs of thaw as Republicans see a different
side of Trump

By Scott Wong and Jonathan Easley - 05/12/16 06:45 PM EDT

This was not the usual Donald Trump.

In a meeting with Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) leadership team on Thursday, the typically brash Manhattan billionaire was polite, professional, and even deferential at times.

During two-plus hours of meetings at the Republican National Committee offices, the presumptive GOP nominee did something he doesn’t seem to do very often on the campaign trail: listen.

“He listened. He asked questions and he listened,” House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), one of the participants, told The Hill after the summit.

For the consummate dealmaker, Trump’s trek to Capitol Hill Thursday represented his biggest and boldest venture yet — namely trying to win over support from leaders of the GOP establishment that he’s repeatedly bashed for the past year.

On Thursday, Trump didn’t score the big prize, an endorsement from sometimes-rival Ryan, the nation’s highest-ranking elected Republican. The two men still have disagreements over specific policies, but the Speaker called their conversations “good,” “productive” and “positive,” describing Trump as “warm and genuine.”

And House GOP campaign chief Greg Walden, the only Republican in the Oregon delegation, became the latest member of Ryan’s leadership circle to endorse Trump. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) had signed on earlier.

“I was very encouraged with what I heard from Donald Trump today,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference after a pair of back-to-back meetings with Trump. “I do believe that we are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified, to bridge the gaps and differences.”

In the closed-door conversations, Trump asked Ryan and others to share their ideas and concerns. And at times, Trump’s top advisers in the room helped Trump navigate potential pitfalls for a first-time candidate whose comments and policies have alienated Muslims, Hispanics, women and people with disabilities.

Knowing McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking female Republican in Congress, has a 9-year-old son with Down syndrome, Trump aides made sure to highlight Trump’s past work with women and the disabled community.

“They clearly had done research,” said a GOP source familiar with the talks.

It wasn’t enough to secure McMorris Rodgers’s endorsement Thursday, but she left the meeting feeling better about Trump than she did when she first arrived. At the end of the gathering, Trump accepted her invitation to address the entire 246-member GOP conference, but they don’t have a date yet.

“It was a positive meeting,” she said in a brief interview.

Thursday saw a shift in tenor from both Ryan and Trump from just a week ago. Then, in a bombshell interview on CNN, the Speaker said he was “not ready” to endorse Trump, and said it was incumbent on the candidate to adjust his tone and policies to unite the party.

But Ryan sounded optimistic about reconciliation before the general election, and Trump has shown signs of moderating. Last December, Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., a plan Ryan called “unconstitutional.” But this week, Trump called it merely “a suggestion.”

Top aides to both Trump and Ryan also attended the gathering with House GOP leaders. Before that, Trump had a more intimate meeting with just Ryan and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

After the pair of RNC meetings wrapped up, Trump’s motorcade made the journey to the other side of Capitol Hill, where he held what was described as a “constructive” meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his leadership team.

He later stopped by Jones Day law firm, where he conferred with former Secretary of State James Baker, who served as chief of staff to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Rep. John Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.), who endorsed Trump last month, said he believes Trump’s outreach Thursday marked a turning point that will unify the party.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more people come on board,” Duncan told The Hill.

And in a phone interview Thursday, former GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson said he’s confident Ryan will be among those who eventually endorse Trump.

“The important thing is they’re talking to each other and getting to know each other," said Carson, who phoned Ryan a day earlier to lay the groundwork for the RNC summit. "I believe they fundamentally like each other and will be able to work together.”

“Speaker Ryan is a very thoughtful man,” Carson added, “and as they get to know each other they’ll find themselves growing closer together and Ryan will make the appropriate decision at the appropriate time.”

While Trump was busy with outreach on Capitol Hill, Carson, who has become a member of Trump’s inner circle as a jack-of-all-trades type, said he’s beginning the process of reaching out to GOP presidential candidates Trump defeated in the primary.

Carson said he even plans to contact former foes like Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham, who have vowed not to support Trump in the general election.
“It was a tough primary, but I think some of his former rivals and those he fought with the most will be open to giving him another look once they see the outreach he's done on Capitol Hill and realize that Hillary Clinton is the only alternative,” Carson said.

There were signs of a potential thaw with Graham, who said he spoke with Trump over the phone a day earlier to discuss national security. That conversation was unthinkable only a few days ago, as the two men have feuded bitterly and Graham has been among the most vocal anti-Trump lawmakers in Washington.

Trump did not have time during his whirlwind trip to D.C. to meet with several of the House lawmakers who have stuck their necks out for him.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said he asked for a meeting but that Trump didn’t have time. Two House GOP chairmen — Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.) and Bill Shuster (Pa.) — also said they didn’t see Trump, while Rep. Darrell Issa said he texted but did not meet with him.

Instead, lawmakers will have their weekly meeting with members of Trump’s campaign team on Friday morning at the Capitol Hill Club.