Presumptive Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump sat down with House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday in an unusual and highly anticipated meeting aimed at healing fissures in the party caused by the billionaire businessman’s insurgent candidacy.
The two met for about an hour at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee near the US Capitol building, sources told Reuters. Afterward, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the RNC and a Ryan friend, wrote on Twitter that the meeting was ‘great’ and “a positive step toward party unity.”
Trump and Ryan then attended a wider meeting with other Republican leaders. Ryan is the nation’s top elected Republican and is seen as a leader of the party establishment that has resisted Trump’s candidacy.
Outside the RNC headquarters, a knot of protesters took advantage of the heavy media presence to denounce Trump with signs that said “the GOP, Party of Trump.”
“RIP GOP,” they shouted, referring to the Republican moniker Grand Old Party.
Party leaders are normally eager to rally around a presidential nominee in order to unite forces for the general election battle. But Ryan has withheld his endorsement of Trump out of concern over his incendiary tone and policy ideas that run counter to deeply held Republican doctrine.
Trump’s campaign has suggested Ryan’s support is not essential, pointing to the more than 10 million votes Trump has received as the prospective Republican nominee during the party nominating process.
Still, a Ryan endorsement would help Trump and the party move past an increasingly awkward phase during which Republican office-holders and congressional candidates alike have publicly struggled with the decision on whether to get behind the New York real estate mogul.
Full support of leading party figures such as Ryan would also assist Trump in building the kind of campaign infrastructure and fundraising operation he may need to compete against the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the Nov. 8 election.
The Hill newspaper on Thursday obtained a memo by the Trump campaign that advocated the benefits of a unified party, arguing that it would put Republicans in the better position to defeat Democrats “at every level” in the election.
For his part, Ryan must weigh the damage endorsing Trump might do to his standing as his party’s leading light on conservative policy, an image he has carefully cultivated for years. Ryan, too, may harbor hopes of running for president in 2020.
Trump last week became the presumptive nominee after his remaining rivals, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Governor John Kasich, dropped out.
Ryan was the running mate with 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, a harsh Trump critic.
The meeting was not expected to lead to an immediate endorsement by Ryan, who opposes Trump’s proposals to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, deport 11 million illegal immigrants and impose protectionist trade policies.
A chief concern among congressional Republicans is whether Trump will be a strong enough candidate in the November election to ensure that the party maintains control of Congress.
While a number of elected Republicans say they would not be willing to serve as Trump’s running mate, Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and presidential hopeful, did not rule it out. “I would certainly talk about it,” Gingrich told Fox News on Wednesday.
Bob Corker, a Republican senator from Tennessee who has been mentioned as possible Trump vice presidential choice, told reporters he would back Trump, but added, “I have no reason to believe that I’ve been considered for vice president.”
U.S. Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a Republican moderate, told reporters that Ryan had struck the right tone so far in reflecting the sentiment of those Republicans with lingering concerns about Trump.
“A number of us are concerned about the lack of policy positions that he (Trump) has presented. The few that he has are often conflicting or contradictory. Combine that with the incendiary statements on POWs, the disabled, Muslims, Hispanics, women, it’s a cause for concern,” Dent said.
U.S. Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican who backed Cruz in the primary race, said Trump needed to acknowledge the conservative bent of the Republican Party. “I’m saying again to Donald Trump: Reach out to the conservatives, start that process, recognize you’re not going to be elected president without it,” King said on MSNBC.
U.S. Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, a Republican favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement who supports Trump, said the Ryan-Trump meeting would begin the process of unifying the party that may last until the July 18-21 nominating convention in Cleveland.