Early Thursday morning, more than 200 Capitol Hill Republicans filed into the Republican National Committee headquarters for a private meeting with Donald Trump. The gathering represented the GOP’s latest effort to get Trump to play nice with congressional Republicans.
However, details leaked to the Washington Post and Politico shortly thereafter indicate that Trump may have a long way to go in bridging the divide. In one particularly awkward exchange, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake had to correct his party’s presumptive nominee on whether he was even running for reelection:
OMG. This epic Trump-Flake exchange via @WaPoSean @PhilipRucker... pic.twitter.com/e2Zc6Dl3RQ— Eli Stokols (@EliStokols) July 7, 2016
Today’s meeting comes fresh off a speech earlier this week in which Trump both fanned the flames of controversy over his social media manager tweeting an anti-Semitic meme and restated his praise for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. They’re exactly the type of comments that top Republicans say makes it hard for them to publicly support Trump in the fall, but according to sources, they were mostly absent from the conference.
Reports say Trump focused on key issues that tend to play well with Republican lawmakers: tax reforms, Second Amendment protections, and the need to repeal Obamacare. He assured uneasy party members of his commitment to Republican conservatism and his willingness to dedicate himself to their policy priorities.
Despite accounts of tension, most Republican attendees publicly echoed what has become a common talking point about their presumptive nominee: He’s a different man behind closed doors. Arizona Rep. Trent Franks told Roll Call the meeting left him "deeply impressed," and that the billionaire real estate tycoon "expresses himself privately in a way that allays a lot of concerns about what he says publicly." Similarly, New York Rep. Peter T. King, who in the past has been very vocally critical of Trump, said it was "Donald Trump at his best."
"There was no negative moment, no awkward moment," he went on, running counter to the Flake exchange. "He was good today."
The meeting today is a pretty significant event for both parties
For House Republicans, the conference was a crucial step in closing ranks around their nominee, but for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee it represented an opportunity to win votes in key House battleground districts. Though a shift in House control is unlikely, Democrats think Trump’s widespread unpopularity could help them swing a significantly larger minority.
They’re calling it the "Trump model" of persuadable voters, according to Politico. It entails linking vulnerable House Republicans to the lightning rod candidate in the hopes that bipartisan distaste for Trump will sink them both. It’s a strategy they think could generate fervor in House campaigns, which generally don’t garner too much public attention.
As Kansas House hopeful Jay Sidie conceded to Politico, congressional issues like "the fiduciary rule kind of put people to sleep, to be honest with you. And then there’s Trump — and then they wake up."
The DCCC also wagers that closing its margin in the House could put additional pressure on Speaker Paul Ryan by forcing him into closer proximity with the Freedom Caucus — a small group of hard-line congressional conservatives with whom he has repeatedly butted heads. The presidential election has already highlighted the precariousness of Ryan’s position in the party, but a comfortable Republican majority has worked to insulate him from the faction’s more obstructionist demands.
The DCCC has the long game in mind here: If it can take enough moderate Republicans out of play, Ryan would be forced to work more closely with the caucus, further sullying his clear-eyed, pragmatic reputation and possibly neutralizing him as a candidate against Clinton in 2020.
Democrats appear to be fully embracing the strategy. This morning, NBC News reported that the DCCC has purchased early campaign ads in 10 key House battleground districts.