WASHINGTON — Donald Trump had a heated exchange with one of his fiercest congressional critics Thursday during a visit with lawmakers intended to encourage party unity, according to two sources familiar with what occurred.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee told Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake he would work to defeat him if he didn’t change his tune. Flake, who has slammed Trump for his positions on immigration and his racially charged criticism of a Latino judge, reminded Trump that he is not up for re-election until 2018.
The back-and-forth unfolded as Trump asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to be more supportive of his candidacy and encouraged GOP senators to unite behind him, warning of negative consequences of a divided party.
Trump huddled with House and Senate Republicans — including former primary rival Ted Cruz — Thursday as he seeks to unite the party at a time when his campaign is again clouded by controversy.
The clash with Flake contrasted with the far more positive mood he seemed to display during his earlier meeting with House Republicans, many of whom said they were encouraged by Trump’s more subdued tone.
Rep. Chris Collins, who was one of the first House lawmakers to endorse Trump, said 25 to 30 members lined up to ask questions, and Trump took every one. In a brief gaggle after the meeting, lawmakers supportive of Trump said they felt the meeting was a positive step toward unity.
Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said Trump repeatedly said “we need to stick together.”
“He was pleading with us for it,” said Cramer, who added he felt that Trump had struck the right tone in the meeting.
The meeting comes as many Republicans on Capitol Hill are trying to come to grips with Trump’s freewheeling style — on display Wednesday night during a speech in Cincinnati in which he reignited a controversy over a tweet some have said is anti-Semitic — that seems to appeal to many in the GOP base but could turn off the broader electorate heading into the November election. Many who attended the House meeting said Trump, who was accompanied by his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, repeatedly spoke of his desire to unite the party and vowed to accelerate the pace of fundraising for his own effort and congressional races — which had been a major point of concern for members.
At one point, he turned to Ivanka and asked her to vouch for the fact that he won’t “let you down.”
Rep. Cresent Hardy of Nevada, who is not going to the Republican National Convention later this month and has not endorsed Trump, asked one of the first questions inside the meeting. He told Trump he was worried about his ability to appeal to the broader electorate during the general election.
Hardy said he represents a district with a large Hispanic, Asian and African-American populations that may be one of the most diverse GOP districts in the country and noted that he is now running against a Latino opponent who is using Trump’s comments as a wedge issue.
His question, he said, was whether Trump can run a general election campaign that can win over diverse voters without continuing to offend them.
Rep. Peter King, R-New York, said Trump took the time to give a lengthy answer to Hardy’s question.
“Trump spent about 10 minutes answering the question — why he thought he could turn that around,” King said. “He was giving examples of some polls where his numbers have gone up, and again, distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration, the importance of jobs. He handled it well. Being in the room, he handled it well.”
The tenor of the questions to Trump, several House members said, was polite and respectful.
Members asked about his potential nominees to the Supreme Court, the FBI investigation into Clinton’s email practices, his position on trade, and how much he would be campaigning for House members before November.
“He basically said he would be everywhere from now to election day,” said King, who has been critical of Trump’s candidacy. “It was actually probably Donald Trump at his best.”
Several members also said Trump spoke at length about expanding the electoral map — stating that he could put Oregon, Washington, Michigan and Connecticut in play, even though those states that have long been out of reach for the GOP.
Trump was, however, pressed by the lawmakers about he quickly he could catch up in fundraising — despite the $51 million haul announced early this week — as well as how he planned to smooth over some of his more inflammatory rhetoric with key minority groups.
The meeting between Cruz and Trump was their first since the Texas senator dropped his presidential bid in May. Cruz has not formally endorsed Trump and still has the loyalty of some delegates to the Republican National Convention in July. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus also attended the meeting between Trump and Cruz.
The congressional outreach comes as many Republicans on Capitol Hill are unifying around a strategy to combat presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by keeping her email scandal alive to exacerbate voter concerns about her trustworthiness. Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled FBI Director James Comey during a hearing Thursday, just two days after he recommended the Justice Department not press charges against Clinton over classified information found on her private email server.
Though he didn’t recommend charges, many Republicans believed they’d been handed a gift this week with Comey’s denunciation of Clinton’s carelessness in her email practices as secretary of state.
But Trump went off message when he took the stage in Cincinnati Wednesday night as he could not resist defending himself from the slights of the “lying,” “dishonest” media.
“It’s a star, it looks like a sheriff’s star,” he said indignantly Wednesday night in Ohio, castigating those who described the shape as anti-Semitic.
To amplify his argument, he noted that his son draws all kinds of stars when he gets home from school and tweeted a photo of a children’s sticker book from the Disney movie “Frozen” that featured a star of the same six-pointed shape.
“Where is the outrage for this Disney book? Is this the ‘Star of David’ also?” Trump tweeted next to the image of Disney princesses Elsa and Anna. “Dishonest media! #Frozen.”