Trump, who built a campaign on lambasting Republican elites, Thursday came to the citadel of the political establishment — Capitol Hill — for a summit with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other party leaders designed to halt the GOP’s self-immolation.
From the moment the billionaire’s Boeing 757 rolled to a stop to the moment when it lifted into the steel gray skies over Ronald Reagan National Airport nearly six hours later, he whipped up an extraordinary spectacle — perhaps a taste of what is to come if he is elected president.
It was a day, as reporter Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta put it, that was about Republicans beginning to build a “tent big enough for the circus that you have seen roll into town.”
The Capitol Dome — glistening white in its newly restored state — has known generations of political drama but can rarely have witnessed such a media carnival– as GOP leaders sat down to talk a truce with the ringleader of their rebellious grassroots.
At the end of the day, there was a general feeling that after the recriminations of a bitter primary season — things had gone rather better than many people expected.
“While we were honest about our few differences, we recognize that there are also many important areas of common ground,” Ryan and Trump said after their meeting — which lacked a grip-and-grin photo-op but was described by both sides as a good start.
“We will be having additional discussions, but remain confident there’s a great opportunity to unify our party and win this fall, and we are totally committed to working together to achieve that goal.”
The statement included a concession to Trump — a recognition that he had brought millions of new voters into the Republican fold.
But it also inadvertently hinted at the distance that still remains when the statement talked about unification of the party — a word more often employed to refer to mending nations carved in two by manmade walls, like the Koreas or Cold War-era Germany.
Still, one senator told the reporter. Manu Raju that the meetings had gone well and that the voluble billionaire let others do the talking.
“They actually kind of liked him,” the senator said, who asked not to be on the record.
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There was one significant piece missing from the day of Republican healing — a formal endorsement of Trump by Ryan. But the speaker left the impression that such a step could happen if follow-up meetings designed to drill into the “weeds” of policy differences between the two men go well.
Trump and Ryan had raised the stakes for the talks themselves — especially after the Speaker last week said in a bombshell reporter interview that he was not ready to endorse the fiery presumptive GOP nominee, who later complained that he was blindsided.
For once — Trump, though the center of attention, did not contribute to the political cacophony himself, contenting himself with the Ryan statement and a few Tweets.
Reporters only glimpsed him fleetingly, as he stepped out of his Secret Service SUV to offer his distinctive gesture: a wave from his much-commented-upon hands becomes a thumbs up.
“Great day in D.C. with @SpeakerRyan and Republican leadership. Things working out really well! #Trump2016,” the presumptive nominee tweeted as his jet taxied to the runway as he left town.
Mr. Trump came to Washington followed by a huge media pack, and his visit recalled the wall-to-wall coverage last seen when Pope Francis was in town last year.
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Adding to the spectacle: Bagpiper Ben Williams, who played at Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral, played “Amazing Grace” outside the Republican National Committee headquarters in a bid to foster feelings of unity, while protestors, including one wearing a massive papier mache head of Trump, picketed the meeting and a CodePink protestor held a banner reading “Trump is a racist.”
In some ways, Thursday was the first step in a transfer of power.
Ryan is the man who, as the top-ranking Republican in the U.S. government, has been effectively the Republican Party leader in a turbulent period and has framed an alternative, conservative, agenda to Trump’s to safeguard his House majority.
But once Trump finishes piling up the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the Republican nomination, he will become the face of the party — and lead it back to power in the White House or consign it to another four years in the wilderness.