Trump and McConnell shake hands, thawing icy relationship

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former President Donald Trump set aside their years-long cold war during a private meeting with Republicans Thursday, a gathering McConnell described as “really positive.”

The Kentucky Republican, who had not spoken directly with Trump since December 2020, is trying to win back the Senate majority for his successor while also working with a presidential nominee who he strongly criticized after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.

“We had a really positive meeting, he and I got a chance to talk a little bit, we shook hands a few times, he got a lot of standing ovations, it was an entirely positive meeting. Mitt Romney was there, as well, and I can’t think of anything to tell you about it that was negative,” McConnell said.

Trump praised McConnell for counting votes and said the party needs to be unified and not trashing each other to win in November, according to one attendee, granted anonymity to speak candidly. Trump was also asked if he would help beat incumbent Democrats, and he responded that he would help defeat Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), criticizing them for opposing his agenda when he was president.

The confab at the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Capitol Hill was both a legislative and political strategy session aimed at uniting the GOP ahead of the convention this summer. Even several senators who do not yet support Trump opted to attend.

And Trump told the Senate GOP, relegated to the minority for four years, that he is optimistic about retaking the majority this fall, according to another attendee. Trump campaign adviser Susie Wiles also got a round of applause for running the campaign.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a McConnell critic, said the Senate GOP leader and Trump shook hands and Trump spoke to McConnell. Hawley said Trump acknowledged that Republicans have had differences in the past, but the Missourian added the meeting was “gracious and warm.” It did not include the kind of fireworks that Trump sometimes set off in past meetings over his intra-party critics, Hawley added.

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), one of those frequent Trump critics, declined to say anything after the meeting. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he’s still not quite committed to endorsing Trump; he’s said positive things about candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in addition to Trump. But Paul did seem to have a positive view of the meeting.

“There was a lot of unity. A lot of people think we’re going in the wrong direction now,” Paul said, adding the discussion was “mostly policy.”

Trump took several policy questions on defense, inflation and energy, according to Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who Trump has criticized previously. Trump also praised Israel’s Iron Dome system, suggesting a similar system could protect America, and advocated removing taxes from tipped wages, saying he got the idea from an overtaxed waitress, one of the attendees said. Republicans also discussed leaving abortion policy to the states, a point Trump had made in his previous meeting with the House GOP, according to several attendees.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said Trump’s message was “all positive” when talking to the conference and centered on keeping Republicans unified headed into the fall elections. Tuberville sat next to Trump antagonist Romney (R-Utah) but said the former president didn’t take aim at the senators who have not endorsed him — nor did they criticize him.

“I haven’t seen that Republican group as strongly united on all of those policy issues in a long, long time,” Rounds said.

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