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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

GOP senators lunch with Trump, don’t bring up McCain remark

President Donald Trump waves to members of the media as he walks across the South Lawn to board Marine One at the White House in Washington, Monday, May 14, 2018, for a short trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
By Lisa Mascaro and Anne Flaherty Associated Press

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump appeared to be in a good mood Tuesday when he met privately with Senate Republicans, buoyed by primary election results and talks with North Korea, and bypassing any serious discussion of high-profile trouble spots in the administration.

Senators did not ask about a White House aide’s crass remark of ailing GOP Sen. John McCain. They did not bring up special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference.

Instead, Trump joked and dropped one-liners during lunch, poking fun at senators of both parties in a wide-ranging 45-minute talk about the GOP tax cuts, the Iran nuclear deal and his upbeat assessment of the midterm election. He told them he so enjoyed West Virginia, where Republicans escaped an embarrassing primary setback last week, that he might move there after his time in the White House. He took a couple of questions.

But the Senate’s top Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, told reporters afterward that the White House official who disparaged McCain “should apologize and should apologize publicly.”

Trump’s Capitol Hill lunch Tuesday with Senate Republicans comes as the White House and its GOP allies are trying to coalesce around a political message ahead of the midterm elections.

But much like when Trump was headed to the GOP Senate lunch to talk policy in October 2017, the White House agenda was eclipsed by another story.

During a closed-door meeting last week, White House communications aide Kelly Sadler dismissed McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel by saying of the Arizona Republican: “He’s dying anyway.” The 81-year-old McCain was diagnosed in July with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Sadler has apologized to the McCain family privately, but McCain’s daughter has asked for a public apology. Several GOP senators have also said the administration should apologize. But the White House, which has appeared more focused on the leak of the McCain comment instead of its substance, has said it has dealt with the matter internally – but has refused to say how.

Senators did not press the issue. “That’s not what we do in these meetings,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters. “No one would have ever brought up something like that.”

It was familiar terrain. Last fall, Trump was feuding with Corker when he arrived for lunch having tweeted that the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations panel couldn’t get elected dog catcher. Corker has decided not to seek re-election.

Senators appear to have long given up on trying to change Trump and are increasingly relying on the president to help protect the GOP’s slim 51-49 majority in the Senate this fall.

Two senators spoke up at the meeting, including Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who pulled a card from his coat pocket outlining all the GOP accomplishments and encouraged Trump to focus on them.

Another senator – Dean Heller, who faces a tough re-election in Nevada – told Trump how popular he was in Israel for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Heller described pro-Trump banners hanging from streetlights and wrapping buses during his visit for the opening, and told the president, “if you had banners hanging from the light posts in America, the media would tear them down.” Heller added, “He totally agreed.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said the president told them he was “very confident” about the midterms. Trump told them he “loved West Virginia,” so much so that he might move there some day. “He said that,” Kennedy said.

Democrats, watching their leads in some polling narrow ahead of the midterm elections, waged a pre-emptive strike on the lunch session, targeting a long list of Trump’s unfilled campaign promises.

“Some folks confuse chaos for activity,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “The truth is, the president’s impulsive and erratic behavior has scuttled bipartisan legislation.”

Schumer said, “The president talks a good game, but actions and accomplishments in area after area after area escape him.”

Trump acknowledged the difficulty in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Alliance ahead of a Thursday deadline, said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., but said efforts “to improve NAFTA are absolutely crucial.”

He spoke about the importance of building a border wall with Mexico but talked little about how he’ll persuade Congress to fund it as part of a deal to protect young immigrants from deportation.

He told them to expect administrative action in coming weeks on health care after Congress failed to undo the Affordable Care Act.

He received applause from behind closed doors.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said: “He was talking specifically about the accomplishments with the Trump admin, with the Congress. I think that’ll be a continuing thing.”