July 22, 2024

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Republicans host ‘pep rally’ with Trump in his first visit to Capitol Hill since Jan. 6 attack

WASHINGTON — Three and a half years ago, President Donald Trump incited a violent riot at the Capitol in a bid to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory and remain in power, a special House committee concluded after a lengthy investigation.

On Thursday, Trump made his first visit to Capitol Hill since before the Jan. 6 attack as Republicans gave a hero’s welcome to their party’s presumptive 2024 nominee.

Less than five months before Trump’s rematch with Biden, the closed-door meetings with House and Senate Republicans represented a rare moment of unity for a party that has been engaged in a civil war since Jan. 6.

In the Senate meeting, Trump made peace with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who had blamed Trump for the deadly Capitol riot. The two men had not spoken since December 2020. McConnell said he and Trump shook hands several times Thursday, calling it “a good meeting” and an “entirely positive session.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a Trump loyalist, said as he left the House gathering, “It was a pep rally for President Trump.”

With Trump and Biden locked in a competitive race and control of Congress up for grabs this fall, many in the GOP expressed optimism about sweeping the 2024 elections and acting swiftly on Trump’s agenda.

Trump delivered a message about “unity,” saying Republicans need to come together to defeat Democrats in November, said a source in his meeting with House Republicans. He offered to do tele-town halls for members facing tough races and stressed that Republicans should not attack one another.

At one point, two sources said, Trump implored a close ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to get along with House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., whom she attempted to oust from power.

“Marjorie, are you being nice to Mike?” Trump asked, the sources said, eliciting laughter from House Republicans.

A source who observed Greene’s reaction said she made a “sort of” hand gesture, which Greene herself confirmed afterward.

During his talk, Trump jumped from topic to topic, touching on border security and China — “They are ripping us off” — to railing against trans athletes in women’s sports.

Minutes after the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the abortion pill mifepristone, Trump told House Republicans that in the post-Roe-v.-Wade environment, the party needs to talk about abortion correctly, multiple sources said.

He acknowledged that the issue of abortion rights had cost Republicans and that it’s too important to ignore while adding it’s now back in the hands of the people and the states — his stated preference. He also voiced support for abortion policy that includes exceptions in cases like rape and incest and to protect the life of the woman.

“We’re the party of common sense” on that and other key issues, Trump told the lawmakers. He did not directly refer to mifepristone or the Supreme Court ruling.

Members in the room had mixed reactions to his abortion riff, the sources said.

Trump also took a shot at Milwaukee, the host city of the Republican National Convention, where Trump will formally accept the GOP presidential nomination. It’s planned for July 15 through 18, though Trump may not attend in person.

He called Milwaukee “horrible” and said it was overrun by crime, a source said, adding that no one in the room disagreed with him.

As Trump arrived for his first meeting at the Capitol Hill Club on Thursday morning, a handful of protesters held signs reading things like “Failed Coup” and “Democracy forever, Trump never.” The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has set up a mobile billboard that will try to follow Trump between meetings while airing video from the Jan. 6 attack.

Potential running mates and detractors

Thursday’s meeting was the first time since the Capitol riot that Trump had been in the same room with McConnell, with Trump’s campaign having accused McConnell of “killing the Republican Party through weakness and cowardice” and having gone after McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, with racist attacks.

At the time, McConnell slammed Trump as being “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” of Jan. 6. He has since endorsed Trump for president — and announced that he will step down as Senate GOP leader after this year.

“I said three years ago right after the Capitol was attacked that I would support our nominee, regardless of who it was — including him. I’ve said earlier this year I support him. He’s earned the nomination by the voters all across the country,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday, without using Trump’s name.

Senators described the handshakes between Trump and McConnell as a unifying moment. “To me, that was some type of reconciliation,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. “There was a lot of unity in that room.”

During the meeting, Senate GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso of Wyoming brought out a birthday cake to mark Trump’s 78th birthday on Friday. Candles on the cake read “45” — Trump was the 45th president — but Barrasso added another set of candles on the cake that read “47,” as Trump seeks to return to the White House as the 47th president.

Senators wished Trump a happy birthday, and he made a wish before he blew out the candles.

The Senate discussion focused heavily on energy and economic policy, including threatening tariffs on China if it buys oil from Iran. And he spoke about a new policy proposal he raised at a Las Vegas rally over the weekend: getting rid of taxes on tips.

Trump joked to senators that he has become very popular among the caddies at Mar-a-Lago, his golf club and home in Florida, after he proposed tax exemptions for tips, according to Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told NBC News, “The little guy who makes his money on tips — making that no longer taxable is something that really resonates with a lot of people.”

Between meetings with House and Senate Republicans, Trump sat down with CEOs with the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group that says it represents more than 200 major companies, as Washington and key industries prepare for the reality that Trump might be president again.

Several top contenders vying to be Trump’s running mate also had a chance to catch his attention Thursday. They included GOP Sens. JD Vance of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina. Trump mentioned the trio by name but not in a way that revealed his thinking about a decision about his running mate, a source said.

Some Trump critics in the party did skip out on the Senate meeting, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Both voted to convict Trump after he was impeached in connection with Jan. 6.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, another vocal Trump critic who voted for conviction, had planned to catch a flight rather than attend the meeting. But on Wednesday, he said his flight to Florida had been canceled and that therefore he would join the event.

Trump was not expected to set foot in the Capitol complex itself, which his supporters overran in 2021. He huddled in the morning with House Republicans at the Capitol Hill Club, a private Republican club just steps from the Capitol office buildings. In the afternoon, he was to meet with GOP senators at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters after having addressed the Business Roundtable.

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., who has not endorsed Trump for president, declined to say whether he would attend.

“No Trump questions,” Young said, adding that it is a personal rule “until I decide to make it no longer a rule.”