Political News

Talking to Senators, President Stays on (His Own) Message

Posted May 15, 2018 9:03 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — When presidents make the trip to Capitol Hill from the White House to address lawmakers, they usually have a request to make, a policy proposal to sell or an overarching message to deliver.

That did not appear to be the case on Tuesday, when President Donald Trump held forth for close to an hour during a closed-door lunch with Republican senators in a monologue that was part political update, part celebration and part comedy routine, according to several people present and others briefed on the meeting.

Trump steered clear of contentious topics, like an aide’s controversial remark about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has brain cancer — and no senators asked him about it.

He did not address his abrupt decision this week, announced on Twitter, to reconsider penalties against the Chinese electronics maker ZTE, which was punished for violating U.S. sanctions and is suspected of being a surveillance risk.

And he did not browbeat senators in person, as he has on Twitter, about changing their rules to make it easier to push through legislation along party lines or about scrapping their summer vacation to work on his agenda.

Instead, Trump talked about his accomplishments — including the surging economy; the decisions to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to pursue nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea; and the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which he said had saved U.S. taxpayers a substantial amount of money — and about his optimism over Republicans’ chances in the fall midterm elections.

“The president and Republican members of the Senate had a positive and productive lunch to discuss top issues like North Korea, Iran, trade and the midterms,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, without responding to several specific questions about Trump’s remarks.

Over a lunch of chicken and salad, Trump gave a speech interspersed with jokes and interrupted by only applause and a couple of friendly questions from senators, according to several people present and others briefed on the session who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private discussion.

Trump mused about his popularity in West Virginia, saying he might take up residence in the state. He singled out the sitting Democratic senator running for re-election, Joe Manchin — one of several Democrats facing voters in states that Trump won handily — saying he was always trying to hug him. But, Trump added, “He has a problem.”

The president thanked senators for their well wishes for his wife, Melania, who was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center recovering from what the White House said was a medical procedure to treat a kidney condition, then he talked about her popularity. Melania Trump, he said, had really great poll numbers — so great that he has told her not to run against him.

And he recounted how he persuaded President Xi Jinping of China to release three American college basketball players arrested in Hangzhou, China, for shoplifting luxury goods, according to three people who were present or were told about his comments. Trump joked about the episode, marveling that three 7-foot-tall athletes could think that they could get away with stealing in a country where most people, he said, are around 5 feet tall.

Senators left the meeting privately comparing Trump’s freewheeling performance to a comedy club routine, according to one person briefed on the lunch.

“The president was in a very good mood,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told reporters later, “and really quite funny.”

Trump offered an update on negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement, calling it a “bad deal,” but said that the talks on revising it were going well and that it would soon become clear if a new version could be struck.

He also spoke about his priorities, including funding his long-promised wall on the southern border with Mexico, an item he has so far failed to get Congress to deliver. And he said he would become a fixture on the campaign trail to help Republicans defend their majority.

“Mostly, we didn’t interrupt the president; we let him talk,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “It was a very honest, unvarnished, ‘here’s what I’m thinking’ speech. He said he feels very confident about the midterms.”

Trump complained about how Republicans fared late last year in Alabama, where Roy S. Moore, the party nominee he endorsed despite sexual abuse and child molestation accusations, lost his race to a Democrat, Doug Jones.

The president said he was relieved that the party might now avoid a similar fate in a West Virginia race that is among the most contested of the year. Days before a Republican primary there last week, Trump tweeted his opposition to Don Blankenship, a former coal mine operator who served a year in prison and campaigned on making racially insensitive comments about McConnell’s family. Blankenship lost the race.

“He was very optimistic and upbeat about it, and talked about the importance of us working hard and not screwing up,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said of Trump’s assessment of the party’s chances in the midterms. “He’s getting better at this,” Isakson added. Mike Braun, who won a Republican Senate primary in Indiana last week, was a guest at the lunch, where the president said he would keep returning to the state to campaign against “Sleepin’ Joe Donnelly,” his derisive name for the Democratic senator up for re-election there.

The comments as described by those who heard them appeared similar, in part, to the stump speech Trump delivered last week at a rally in Elkhart, Indiana, where he told more than 7,000 supporters that Donnelly was a “swamp person,” and he boasted of his own achievements as president, including abandoning the Iran deal, making progress toward the talks with North Korea and saving money on the new embassy.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that he saved hundreds of millions of dollars on the new outpost in Israel, comparing its cost of $200,000 to $300,000 with the estimated $1 billion proposed for a new embassy. But the building dedicated Monday is a converted consular office that will serve as a temporary space until a new embassy, which will ultimately be more costly, can be constructed in Jerusalem.

Then, as an aside and in an apparent reference to the three college basketball players freed from China, Trump suggested during the lunch that no one in the room knew the harsh Chinese penalties for shoplifting better than Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

It was not immediately clear what the president meant, but several senators laughed.