WASHINGTON — The Republican Party lurched back toward unity Thursday after Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the party’s top leader on Capitol Hill, concluded a closely watched summit with soothing statements that the GOP can, after all, get along.
“I was very encouraged with what I heard from Donald Trump today,” Ryan said after the meeting. “We are now planting the seeds to get ourselves united. . . . This is a process. It takes a little time. You don’t pull it together in 45 minutes.”
The Trump-Ryan confab was convened after Ryan took the extraordinary step last week of announcing that he wasn’t yet ready to support Trump as his party’s nominee. The pair met early Thursday along with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, followed immediately afterward by a larger meeting with Ryan and other members of House GOP leadership. Trump then met with Senate Republican leaders.
In the wake of these meetings — covered breathlessly all day, with cameras focused on Trump’s car, or his idling airplane — the sounds of harmony rippled across Capitol Hill.
“He was terrific. I was really quite impressed,” said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. “I totally endorse him.”
“He’s actually a pretty affable guy in a small group setting. Obviously much different than the public demeanor,” said Senate majority whip John Cornyn.
“The meeting was great,” Priebus tweeted. “It was a very positive step toward party unity.”
But the sunny sentiments belie a continued tension at the heart of the GOP. Even the feel-good statements that emerged from Trump’s series of meetings couldn’t ignore the real differences on policy and tone that persist after a bruising primary fight that produced a very unconventional candidate at the top of the GOP ticket.
“While I may disagree with the rhetoric Mr. Trump uses and some policy positions, he is the better option than Hillary Clinton in the White House,” Representative Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. “That’s why all along I’ve said I intend to support the GOP nominee.”
Representative Charlie Dent, a moderate from Pennsylvania, said many members of his caucus — including those supporting Trump — still harbor concerns about their presumptive nominee. Trump “has to convince many Americans, including myself, that he’s ready to lead this great nation,” said Dent, who does not yet support Trump.
Underscoring his party’s continued unease, Ryan declined to fully embrace the real estate mogul despite expressing optimism for unity down the road.
“This is going in a positive direction,” Ryan said, adding that Trump invited him to stay on as chairman of the Republican National Convention.
The day marked a new phase for Trump. A candidate who spent months bashing the Republican establishment into befuddlement found himself in a black SUV driving to the very embodiment of the establishment: The Republican National Committee, and the offices of its chairman.
Trump was also in the rare position of keeping a relatively low profile, waving as he walked into meetings but never speaking before microphones.
“Great day in D.C. with @SpeakerRyan and Republican leadership,” he tweeted after his meetings concluded. “Things working out really well!”
The scene was somewhat less glitzy than the real estate mogul is used to, more down-at-the-heels carnival than velvet rope chic. TV cameras were at every entrance, with correspondents doing live shots from back alleys, surrounded by trash cans and garages and hoping to capture Trump’s car. Protestors included a man wearing a giant paper-mâché Trump head. Another man, wearing a pro-Trump T-shirt, alternated between blowing a Shofar and singing into a bullhorn.
A group of undocumented immigrants commanded the steps, forcing Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, to dodge the bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” and hop a low railing to reach the front door. (An Issa spokesman said later that his boss was dropping something by the building for a meeting unrelated to Trump).
“What is this?” Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, asked as he walked toward the Capitol.
Inside, Ryan said later, the two men discussed their differences and the “core principles that tie us together,” like the Constitution, separation of government powers, states rights, their antiabortion stances, and nominating a conservative to the Supreme Court.
Ryan is in a political bind. He oversees a divided House Republican caucus dominated by partisans who embrace ideological purity — but is now trying to grapple with the presumptive nominee who prides himself on ideological flexibility and a willingness to cut deals. Ryan is also the former vice presidential running mate of Mitt Romney, who has emerged as Trump’s most vocal critic.
Thursday was the first time Ryan has met with Trump the presidential candidate. They had met only once before, in 2012, for what Ryan said was a mere 20 seconds.
Trump, a former Democratic voter and donor, once signaled he supported abortion rights, has expressed a willingness to raise the minimum wage, and strongly opposes free trade deals. All of those are anathema to the traditional Republican core.
Senators said their meeting with Trump covered a range of issues, including trade, taxes, and border security.
Cornyn, of Texas, said he spoke with Trump about the importance of distinguishing between legal and illegal immigrants in his rhetoric and offered advice on how to win over Hispanic voters.
“Part of it is just showing respect,” Cornyn said. “He seemed to be certainly open and willing to listen.”
Hatch, who had previously urged Trump to tone down his rhetoric, said he did not have to broach the subject during their one-hour meeting. “He was very, very congenial, very straightforward, very open to questions, criticism.”
Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country came up peripherally in the discussion, Hatch said. His tax returns did not; the day before, Trump caused controversy by suggesting he might not release his returns before the November election.
“There were naturally questions raised that you might call criticisms but he handled them all really well,” said Hatch, the longest serving Republican in the Senate. “I don’t think there were so many concerns other than we want him to win and we want him to be the next president.”
Even some of Trump’s most ardent critics within the party found something nice to say about the presumptive nominee. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has voiced sharp and at times colorful concerns about Trump, said he had a “very cordial” phone conversation with the candidate Wednesday night.
The two spent about 20 minutes speaking mostly about national security, said Graham, a former rival for the GOP nomination. “He won, I lost, but the fact that he’s reaching out and wants to talk to me about something I’ve spent a lot of time on I think is reassuring,” Graham said.
Not that he is changing his mind on supporting Trump for president. The South Carolina Republican said he relayed to Trump that “I’m going to stay right where I’m at in terms of presidential politics.”