“He didn’t even get into a heavy emphasis on ‘we’ve got to reopen, we’ve got to do it really quickly,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “He didn’t go there, he was sorta like, steady as she goes and let’s keep our plans and stick together as we move towards the election.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that it’s clear the president misses his large gatherings and said “of course” he is frustrated he can’t do rallies.
“He’s ready to hit the trail — that’s obvious,” added Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
As usual, the president’s re-election was top of mind. Trump brought up his poll numbers and said they demonstrated that his base of support is stronger than Vice President Joe Biden’s, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, according to attendees.
Senators also discussed next steps for coronavirus legislation. While the House passed its $3 trillion coronavirus package last week with no GOP or White House input, Senate Republicans said Trump endorsed their approach to wait and see how the previous tranches of aid play out.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said he also brought up the need to fix the unemployment system with the president, adding that Trump said the unemployment benefits are hurting the economic recovery and “that’s a problem.” He also said Trump should do these gatherings more often. A lot more often.
“I told him if I were him I’d come up once a month,” he said. “It’s the one thing [George W.] Bush didn’t really do. I’m glad he comes up. Everybody gets to ask him questions.”
It was an unusual venue for a party unity rally. The cavernous room in the Hart building allowed Senate Republicans to continue their social distancing, even as the president flouts the mask-wearing guidance in the Capitol. And though people who meet with Trump get tested for coronavirus these days, the Republican senators, who donned protective masks, did not get tested before the event.
Trump was surrounded by aides as he left, including his new press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who also spoke at the lunch. The president briefly stopped by a pool of reporters to rail against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), calling her a “sick woman” with “a lot of mental problems.” His remarks follow comments the speaker made he previous night on CNN taunting the president over this weight.
While the lunch covered several topics, including discussion of a vaccine against the coronavirus, Republicans were careful to steer away from sensitive topics. No one talked about Trump’s controversial use of hydroxychloroquine. And another issue that didn’t surface was the president’s firing late Friday night of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.
Trump’s move to fire the inspector general came weeks after he ousted Michael Atkinson, the top watchdog for the intelligence community. Even though some Senate Republicans have voiced concern about the firings and demanded that the administration provide Congress with a written explanation as recently as Monday evening, it never came up during the one-hour lunch, according to attendees.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after the lunch that Trump “has the full authority to hire and fire, under the Constitution, anybody in the executive branch.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has voiced concern about the president’s removal of the inspectors general, described the lunch as “interesting” and “eclectic.” She said Trump, whom she has not endorsed, made no overtures for her to do so even as he touted a party unity message.
He also did not single out Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who also attended the lunch. Trump has frequently targeted the Utah Republican on Twitter, after he voted to remove the president from office in February during the Senate’s impeachment trial.
Trump’s visit to the Hill and emphasis on his own re-election chances comes as the president in recent weeks has mounted a furious new attack on former president Barack Obama, repeatedly tweeting “Obamagate,” the president’s shorthand for unspecified allegations that his predecessor committed crimes against him.
Trump has offered no evidence to support the accusation but has railed against senior Obama administration figures who had a hand in the FBI’s long-running investigation of his campaign’s contacts with Russia.
And the president didn’t shy away from talking about 2016 and Russian election meddling again on Tuesday,
“We talked about the investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and his concerns, which you’ve heard before which many of us share, about using the institutions like the FBI and the DOJ and others to undermine an incoming president,” Cornyn said.
The message is starting to sink in.
After months of pressure from the president, Graham said Monday his committee will vote in early June to subpoena a wide range of Obama and Trump administration officials connected to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And McConnell also chastised the FBI in his floor remarks Tuesday for its 2016 counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and ties to Russia.
“No matter what some Washington Democrats may try to claim, you’re not crazy or a conspiracy theorist if you see a pattern of institutional unfairness toward this president,” McConnell said. “You would have to be blind not to see one.”
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.