WASHINGTON — The Capitol has been abuzz in recent months over a budget deal, House leadership turmoil, a Supreme Court nominee fight. But on Tuesday, one man was the topic du jour: Donald Trump.
As Congress convened for the first time since Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, the New York real estate mogul and reality TV star dominated the questions being pelted at Republican senators as they exited the basement trams ferrying them from their offices to their weekly policy lunch.
But as they gamely tried to turn attention to anything else — like an energy and water bill headed to the Senate floor — the man who has washed over the Republican Party like a tsunami was as inescapable as the discomfort among those who find their party led by someone who has spent the last 11 months castigating the Washington establishment.
Trump. Trump? Trump!
“It’s the damnedest thing anybody has ever seen,” Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said of the presidential race. “When it’s over, that’s when I’m going to feel good.”
Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee now fighting to hold onto his seat, was mobbed by reporters as he rode up an escalator. As cameras flashed, reporters asked the Arizona Republican what he thinks about Trump’s first scheduled meeting with Republican congressional leaders on Thursday.
“Obviously I have no influence over what he’s going to say,” McCain said, unusually curt, before disappearing behind elevator doors much more briskly than typical for the 79-year-old senator.
Senator Ted Cruz was back in the Senate hallways for the first time since ending his presidential bid. He joined other vanquished foes (Senators Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio) Trump has left in his wake, forever tagged with nicknames like “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco.”
In front of a crush of reporters who blocked a wide marble hallway, Cruz held a press conference in which he ruled out a third-party run and declined to say whether he would eventually endorse Trump. Less than a week after dropping out of the race, he also floated the idea that he could still compete for the nomination.
“Listen, we have suspended the campaign because I can see no viable path to victory,” Cruz said. “Of course if that changed, we would reconsider things.”
After holding court for nearly 10 minutes, Cruz entered his Senate office to loud cheers from his staff.
In the Capitol basement, Isakson, who is also running for reelection and, like McCain, said he would support the Republican ticket, batted away questions over whether he thinks there’s anything Trump could change in terms of policy while on the campaign trail.
“There’s no good answer to that question. It just leads to nowhere and then I’m trapped,” Isakson said. “I need laryngitis as quick as I can get it.”
On the third floor, Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, entered for a press briefing in the Senate press gallery. He passed out cups of chocolate pudding topped with gummy worms and spiral bound manuals detailing waste in federally funded scientific studies.
But the questions quickly turned to . . .
“Trump? Go ahead,” Flake said good naturedly when a reporter sought to change the subject to the inevitable.
Would he attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, when Trump is expected to be formally coronated the GOP nominee?
“I’ve got other things to do,” he said.
He ticked off his skepticism about Trump, saying he’s troubled by the billionaire’s positions on trade, the national debt, temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country, and changing libel laws to go after the press.
“It’s not a comfortable position to be in, to not support your nominee. So I want to, I’d like to,” Flake said. “But he’s got to come around on some of the fundamental things.”
As senators returned from a two-week hiatus, they find their party in a period of disruption. Those up for reelection are unsure whether Trump will help or hurt. Practiced politicians are trying to figure out whether to live by their prior pledge to support the GOP nominee — or whether they can find a way to distance themselves from him.
Failed presidential hopeful Rand Paul hustled toward the safety of the Senate Republicans’ private dining room. “I took a pledge,” he said, without a backward glance, when asked if he would support Trump.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican fighting for reelection who has said she will support Trump but not “endorse” him, walked briskly through the mass outside the GOP luncheon. Has she spoken to Trump since he clinched the nomination? “No, I have not,” she tossed over her shoulder.
At times, conversations took on the tenor of a group therapy session.
“You know when you go through a primary process there’s a lot of emotions, a lot of disappointment,” said Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina. “With the passage of time that goes away, and I think we’ll be in good shape by November.”
“Look, chill,” Senator Bob Corker said of his message to his #NeverTrump colleagues. The Tennessee Republican — who found himself in the middle of running-mate rumors Tuesday — said he believes Trump is starting to flesh out his positions on key issues like foreign policy, a topic on which Corker has advised the billionaire.
“I mean, I think that over the course of the next several months it’s very possible that people may view this in a very different way,” Corker said.
Democrats reveled in their GOP colleagues’ discomfort. Senate minority leader Harry Reid mocked their creative attempts to distance themselves from their presumptive nominee. Take, for instance, Ayotte’s support-but-don’t-endorse stance, he said in a press conference.
“How do you like that one?” Reid said. Standing behind him, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York snorted.
Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican who had previously hosted town halls for 12 of the GOP candidates before Trump prevailed, called the party’s divide over his candidacy an “average family squabble.” Scott said he found Trump to be “very amenable to suggestions and cooperative” during their previous meeting.
Asked if he would campaign and raise money for Trump, Scott responded: “He has more money than I have. I’m hoping he could be campaigning for me.”
But Trump so far seems to be doing little to reach out to those who have fought his candidacy for months.
Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican who said he will support Trump as the presumptive nominee, said he has only met with Trump once — two years ago.
“We want to find some common ground with Mr. Trump. We’d love to have him come on up and share with us what his goals are and some of the tactics he will be using to get to those goals,” Rounds said.
As senators scurried around the Senate hallways throughout the day, there was one notable absence: Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator was in Oregon, still campaigning to defeat Hillary Clinton in his ever-unlikely bid to win the Democratic nomination.