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‘All hands on deck’: Trump vows to help GOP in House races

Republicans sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to former president two weeks after conviction

Protesters hold signs outside of House Republicans’ meeting with former President Donald Trump at the Capitol Hill Club on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Protesters hold signs outside of House Republicans’ meeting with former President Donald Trump at the Capitol Hill Club on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republican lawmakers serenaded former President Donald Trump on Thursday, as he urged them and their Senate counterparts to hold the line on hot-button issues like abortion, immigration and trade tariffs — and work harder to win both chambers in November.

Senators, following a separate meeting with Trump, described that session as upbeat and focused on the path to Election Day in November. Like House Republicans, senators said the former president boasted he has raised $400 million in campaign cash.

Trump was on Capitol Hill for the first time since a mob of his supporters stormed the legislative hall on Jan. 6, 2021, trying to stop lawmakers from counting Electoral College votes showing Trump lost the 2020 election. It also marked his first appearance on the Hill since becoming a convicted felon two weeks ago, and put him face-to-face with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with whom he has clashed, for the first time in three years.

Trump’s morning session in private with House Republicans at the Capitol Hill Club was described as something of a pep rally for conservative causes. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., and others said the atmosphere was a mix of civil and serious, with some lighter moments.

“The president was having a little fun cracking jokes, that kind of thing,” said Donalds, mentioned on some lists as a potential Trump running mate. “But then, also talking seriously just about [members] just working hard to get to the finish line in this election.”

House Republicans are weighing several legislative moves in response to Trump’s conviction, including a bill that would allow former presidents to move state-level cases to federal court and efforts to strip funding for the special counsel that is still pursuing federal indictments accusing Trump of orchestrating the Jan. 6 attack to overturn the 2020 election, and of mishandling classified documents after he left the White House. None of the measures, if they get through the chamber, is expected to clear the Senate, which is under Democratic control, or be signed by Biden.

House Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., described the session as “a pretty good rally-the-troops kind of speech.” Trump will turn 78 on Friday, and several members, with grins, said House Republicans sang “Happy Birthday.”

As they dodged a handful of anti-Trump protesters outside, multiple members said Trump said Speaker Mike Johnson is doing a “great job,” and he teased Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who has clashed with Johnson, R-La. Members said Trump asked if she has been more “nice” to Johnson. “Some people kind of laughed. A few cheered,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. “I thought she took it very gracious.”

Lawmakers said Trump stood by his boasting about how conservatives on the Supreme Court — including three that he appointed — ended federal abortion protections. He also vowed to again use tariffs as president and endorsed a House-passed Republican immigration measure known as H.R. 2.

“He’s a big believer in tariffs,” Cole said, noting Trump spoke about the trade tactic “at great length,” and added: “He clearly supports them as a tool.”

On abortion, “he still believes that the Dobbs decision was the right decision for America, and the American people need to decide the issue, as they are doing right now,” said Republican Study Committee Chair Kevin Hern, R-Okla., referring to the Supreme Court decision that ended federal protections for abortion access.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., was asked about Trump’s message on abortion. He replied: “You know, that we’re working towards where the American people are.”

But many red-state legislatures and courts in recent months have passed laws and issued rulings banning abortion and otherwise limiting reproductive rights — defying polling showing majorities of Americans do not support such tough restrictions.

At campaign rallies and in other public remarks of late, Trump has said the Dobbs ruling rightfully handed the hot-button issue — on which polls show voters siding with Democrats — to state governments. To that end, he told House members Thursday that state “legislatures need to make that decision and we’re seeing that happen across America,” Hern said.

“He said there may be a time and place for the federal government to get involved, but right now, what needs to be done is the voices of the people in the states [should be heard],” the chairman added. “Some are going the right way for Republicans and some are not and he acknowledged that.”

More broadly, Cassidy said Trump’s afternoon remarks centered around “the money he’s raising, the support he’s seeing, and the issues he’s discussing.” Senators said Trump vowed to expand energy extraction in Alaska and claimed Russia would not have attacked Ukraine on his watch.

His meetings with Hill Republicans were intended as a show of support for the presumptive GOP presidential nominee following his conviction on 34 criminal counts of falsifying business records. It also was meant as a display of Republican unity after, especially on the House side, GOP members have clashed with themselves in recent months.

While Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — all Trump critics — said they would skip the afternoon session with Trump, the former president’s popularity within the party is as strong as ever. For instance, 80.4 percent of GOP voters had a favorable view of Trump, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. (Less than one-third, 17.8 percent, reported having an unfavorable view.)

Trump, despite becoming the first former U.S. president to be convicted by a jury, continues to run a competitive race against President Joe Biden. Another FiveThirtyEight metric put them in a dead heat nationally, with Trump leading 40.9 percent to Biden’s 40 percent.

Ratings by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales give Trump the advantage five months from Election Day in the Electoral College race, with a projected 235 votes to Biden’s 226 — but both would be shy of the 270 needed to secure the presidency.

Hern told reporters that Trump described the swing states that are expected to decide the presidential race as “looking really good right now,” noting that Trump told House members “people are really turning out in huge numbers” and that the former president believes “his message is being well received.”

As the 2024 campaign heats up, Cole — who faces a primary challenge on Tuesday — said the House GOP conference “will be extraordinarily supportive” of Trump, and along with Senate Republicans “will give him an exceptional platform — lots of chips to play.”

Inside Elections and other political prognosticators see control of both chambers as up for grabs. To that end, Donalds said Trump indicated he intends to get involved in congressional races. That’s despite the former president’s poor record with helping the party win congressional races since he first was on the ballot in 2016.

“He’s going to work hard. You know, he wants everybody to be successful,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

But Hern said Trump made clear that “he’s not going to carry the load for us — we can’t stop working as individuals.”

Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who is running against GOP Whip John Thune of South Dakota and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida to be the next Republican leader of the chamber, was asked about Trump engaging in verbal sparring sessions with Senate GOP critics in the past.

“I know there was none of that,” Cornyn told reporters. “I think he recognizes now, having been through a few elections, that unity is strength and division is an invitation for your opponents to beat you.”

As always, both sessions were vintage Trump. “He ran the gamut” of issues, said Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C.

Sen. Ted Cruz said Trump’s conviction hasn’t chastened the president or softened his blunter edges. “I don’t think it’s possible to water down Donald Trump,” the Texas Republican said. “He is who he is and he’s a force of nature.”

The senators presented Trump with a sheet cake in honor of his birthday and, while the gathering touched on crucial issues such as border security, energy policy and the economy, the mood was light. “The biggest takeaway was unity,” Cruz said. “Everyone was on the same page, we were all focused on winning in November … the president was in very good spirits. He believes the American people are ready for a change.”

On border security and energy policy, Trump sketched out broad themes. “You can take just about any rally and walk through it and that’s what we walked through today,” said Sen. James Lankford, R.-Okla.

Trump’s comments on immigration did not delve into the specifics of a bill negotiated by Lankford, along with Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. The measure fell short after Trump urged GOP senators to reject it.

Lankford said divides within the Republican Party are often overblown. “We agree on a whole lot more than we disagree on,’’ he said.

But did Trump show any cards about who he will select to be his running mate during his third White House bid?

“No,” Donalds said with a chuckle behind sunglasses on one of the warmest days so far this year in Washington, D.C. “We didn’t get into that.”

Multiple senators also said Trump did not bring up his running-mate selection process, but with several potential No. 2’s in the room, it was alluded to.

“I did notice he did mention the names Tim Scott and J.D. Vance. … He mentioned all the senators who might be candidates,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., referring to the senators from South Carolina and Ohio. He also said Trump mentioned Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a former rival turned potential running mate.

Cornyn quipped: “I do know that the named vice presidential, you know, prospective candidates were all sitting up very close to where the president was speaking.”

Trump pledged to help Republican Senate candidates, several of whom trail him in polls.

“His focus was on how we can jump in and help every candidate,’’ Lankford said, adding that he expects Trump to hold rallies and telephone town halls with candidates.

One still-sensitive incident — on Capitol Hill, at least — that did not come up in the afternoon meeting: the Jan. 6 riot. Cramer said of the session’s content: “It was all forward-leaning.”

Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.