Donald Trump back in Washington for meetings with vice presidential contenders, congressional allies and former foes

By Kristen Holmes, Alayna Treene, Melanie Zanona and Lauren Fox, CNN

CNN  — 

Former President Donald Trump is back in Washington for the first time since becoming the presumptive Republican nominee as well as a convicted felon, holding a pair of significant, closed-door meetings with key congressional allies, vice presidential hopefuls and even a few former outspoken opponents – all of whom are expected to line up behind him this fall.

A bitter primary and general election cycle muddied by Trump’s ongoing legal troubles have given Republicans little opportunity to sync up over the policies and proposals that generally drive an election year.

“He’ll come and lead the team,” GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a fierce Trump ally, told CNN. “I think it’s gonna be a pep rally environment for the former and future president.”

Ahead of the meeting, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn noted it would be “nice” to “get everybody singing from the same sheet of music.” Cornyn has previously criticized Trump and said he preferred to see the GOP move in a different direction, before ultimately endorsing the former president in January.

Senior campaign advisers said Trump was expected to express his campaign priorities and policies — focusing on the economy, inflation, tax cuts and immigration during his meetings, first with House Republicans at the Capitol Hill club in the morning and then with Senate Republicans at the nearby National Republican Senatorial Committee building. He’ll also reiterate his commitment to not cutting entitlement programs for seniors like Social Security and Medicare.

“We want to get everyone on the same page talking about policy, including the economy and inflation,” one senior Trump adviser told CNN. “That’s the biggest factor in all the polling, it’s the biggest thing people are worried about.”

Trump, who will be accompanied by his two top campaign officials, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, among others, is also expected to discuss details around a potential second term agenda, including how to immediately implement his policy goals, with the help of lawmakers, if reelected to the White House. Meanwhile, House Republicans have been eager for information to help them jumpstart legislative action on Capitol Hill next year.

“We want to be part of that plan to hit the ground running,” GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California told CNN. “When most presidents get elected, they anticipate they have eight years. This president knows he has four.”

Advisers said the meetings would also be an opportunity to allow lawmakers to ask questions or bring up any pressing matters ahead of the November election, with Trump planning to open the floor to members after his remarks.

House Majority Steve Scalise told CNN he’s already talked to Trump directly about using a special budgetary tool to avoid the 60-vote threshold in the Senate –  known as reconciliation – to advance tax cuts, border wall funding and other priorities if Republicans control all of Washington.

Some of Trump’s plans for a second term agenda have been outlined by the former President himself during rallies and interviews, including mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and leaving reproductive rights to the states, but other elements have been only proposed vaguely or behind closed doors, and leaked out by media outlets.

Trump’s reception among House and Senate Republicans is likely to vary

Sen. John Barrasso, the third-ranking Senate Republican, invited the full GOP conference to the Thursday event.

However some senators skeptical of Trump would not commit to attending. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of a handful of GOP senators who have not endorsed Trump’s 2024 election bid, said she would not attend due to a conflict. Sen. Todd Young of Indiana wouldn’t say if he was planning to attend, adding that he wasn’t talking about Trump this week.

Though Trump won’t be inside the US Capitol building, his appearance on the Hill will also mark his first time meeting with some key Republicans since the January 6, 2021, insurrection there, including Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell, who has maintained an icy relationship with the former president ever since the Capitol attack, told CNN he will attend the meeting. The two have not spoken since the electoral college certified Joe Biden’s victory in December 2020, however McConnell endorsed Trump earlier this year.

Any tension is likely to be balanced out by some of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders and potential vice-presidential picks, who will also be in attendance, including Sens. Tim Scott, Marco Rubio and JD Vance.

Of those attending, many said they were looking for a more urgent focus, including Trump  laying out a specific strategy to beat President Joe Biden.

“I will be honest with you. To think that we are going to talk a whole lot about a governing agenda on Thursday seems a little naïve to me. That’s like measuring the curtains,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina. “This is about winning in November, and my guess is we may touch on the agenda next year, but that’s a multi-variable equation not the least of which is how well we do here in Congress to take the gavels back.”

Others see it as an opportunity to try and reset the party after months of internal tensions over the future of House Speaker Mike Johnson, aiding the war in Ukraine and the divisions over the best strategy on border security.

In the House, a chamber that has traditionally been friendlier to Trump, members said the former president will find a supportive and enthusiastic audience, including some dressed to impress.

“I just think he wants to get everybody on the same page,” said Sen. Markwayne Mullin, a key Trump ally. “There’s been a little tension there in the Senate. And so it’s just trying to keep the tension from building and saying our focus is Joe Biden and this administration, not each other.”

Sens. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., center, talks with his GOP colleagues at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, April 26, 2023.

GOP Rep. Troy Nehls said he has several different Trump ties to choose from, though he complained that his gold, Trump-branded sneakers are back in Texas.

“He will know that I support him 110%, and I will do everything I can to fight like hell to make sure that he’s the next president,” Nehls said.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, who – as Republican conference chair – was in charge of organizing the House meeting, will also chair the event. Stefanik is one of a short list of vice presidential hopefuls to receive vetting materials from the Trump campaign. Rep. Byron Donalds is also on that list and is expected to attend Thursday.

Trump’s visit comes as House GOP leadership is facing increasing pressure from the right flank to go after the Justice Department and defend Trump in the wake of his hush money conviction in New York.

One legislative proposal Republican leaders are now actively pursuing is a bill that would allow current and former presidents to move state-level cases to federal court. The legislation passed out of committee last September, but GOP leaders only started formally whipping the bill this week – on the eve of Trump’s Capitol Hill visit and two weeks after his conviction.

One thing both House and Senate Republicans agreed on: Trump was unlikely to stay on message.

When asked if they believe Trump will discuss policy plans and campaign strategy and while avoiding airing his grievances, one GOP lawmaker told CNN, “You know the answer to that. It ain’t in his DNA.”

“What do I expect? You have no idea what Trump is going to talk about. It’s just totally unpredictable,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.

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