President Donald Trump showed a roomful of long-winded senators how to wage a filibuster on Tuesday.
Trump showed up to the Senate for a rare confab with GOP senators and spoke for nearly an hour, essentially uninterrupted. He managed to sidestep all controversy — namely, his aide’s joke last week about John McCain’s vote not being needed on CIA Director Gina Haspel because he’s “dying anyway.”
Instead, Trump’s visit to Capitol Hill was something of a campaign rally, for an audience of 50 VIPs.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he wanted to bring up the White House aide’s disparaging comment about McCain but wasn’t given the opportunity.
“There was no time. There were two questions. He spoke for a long time. All of us had our hands up ready to ask questions but ran out of time,” Flake said.
Trump diverged from talking points distributed to White House aides earlier in the day, touting Republicans’ improved general election hopes rather than pressing senators to confirm his nominees. He did, however, put in a plug for his decisions to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to re-engage with North Korea. He ridiculed former President Barack Obama for declaring climate change was the biggest threat to the United States. Instead, Trump insisted that the primary menace to the country is nuclear war and that that‘s why he‘s so focused on Iran and North Korea, according to senators and aides.
The fireworks-free meeting marked another step in Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, where his internal critics are increasingly shying away from direct confrontation with him. It’s not that Republicans don’t have issues with his trade policies, antagonism towards McCain or attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But to hear Republicans tell it, they couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
“The president really just gave a speech. It wasn’t a Q-and-A the way it often is when he comes,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “It was really a presentation.”
That came as a surprise to White House advisers, who had equipped the president with a succinct list of talking points going into the meeting. They wanted him to push Republican lawmakers to rally behind his nominee for CIA director, Gina Haspel, as well as on judicial nominations, according to a source familiar with planning for the session — who expected a contentious back-and-forth between the Trump and the rest of the group.
But Haspel’s name went unmentioned during the president’s soliloquy.
The president came equipped with jokes to disarm his critics. He thanked all the senators in the room for their well-wishes for First Lady Melania Trump after her medical procedure this week, cracking that her poll numbers are so good that he’s told her not to challenge him in the 2020 election, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
Trump also bragged about how nice Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is to him, claiming that Manchin hugs him all the time, the source said. But Trump warned that he‘s so popular in West Virginia that Manchin has a problem this fall.
“It was sort of a rapid-fire delivery. He was probably at his best,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), often judged by his colleagues as one of the funniest senators.
Only two senators really had an opportunity to question Trump, according to lawmakers who were there, and those weren’t even really questions. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said Republicans need to talk more about the GOP‘s accomplishments, and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) heaped praise on Trump for his work on the economy .
“He really didn’t have an ask. It was really more of a thank you,” a GOP senator said of Heller, the most vulnerable Republican senator up for reelection this year.
Trump went on at length about how he would help congressional Republicans take on Democrats this fall. He knocked “Sleepin’ Joe Donnelly” — the vulnerable Democratic Indiana senator — during the meeting. And the president told Republicans that he’s “very optimistic” about the GOP’s chances this fall, according to senators and aides.
The hope among Republicans is that GOP voters will no longer view Trump and Senate Republicans as foes. Trump has attacked the chamber at times for moving too slowly, advising Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to gut the legislative filibuster and criticizing McCain and other senators for resisting his agenda.
But on Tuesday, at least, Republican lawmakers said all was good.
“I thought it was the best talk he’s made. He talked about a lot of the accomplishments,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “There are many. Of course, you guys don’t want to talk about those.”
Notably, Trump did not press for a Senate rules change during the meeting to ease the logjam of judicial and administration nominees awaiting confirmation. White House aides had urged him to press lawmakers about confirming them. He also did not demand that McConnell cancel August recess, senators said.
Instead Trump focused on common ground: Withdrawing from the Iran deal and the potential for a breakthrough with North Korea.
“Some of the things we’re doing are beginning to resonate. The truth of the matter is if North Korea comes out well, that would be a huge success foreign policy-wise and slowing iran down will resonate,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Some Republicans left the lunch still concerned about Trump’s White House. McConnell afterward called on the administration to apologize to McCain. Other senators said they worry about the administration easing economic restrictions on China, or pulling out of NAFTA and causing the economy to slow just before the midterms.
But the president has learned how to handle this crowd.
“He basically shared with us that he thought we had a lousy deal in NAFTA to begin with and he wanted to make it better and he’s going to get the best deal he can,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “He understood that farmers are concerned and he said, ‘I care about the farmers as well.’”
But during his Tuesday stemwinder, Trump was unusually restrained on the topic.
“The word withdraw,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), “was not used.”