The hope this week among Republicans was that Donald Trump would make headway on unifying the party in two pivotal meetings on Capitol Hill.
Trump also pointed to a recent Rasmussen poll showing him ahead of Hillary Clinton by two points nationally during the closed-door meeting on Thursday.
But it wasn’t lost on the GOP senators what was left unsaid: a string of other recent polls — including those from better-regarded sources such as Reuters, USA Today, Quinnipiac and Pew Research — show Clinton ahead.
With just more than a week to go before the GOP convention in Cleveland, angst over the presidential contest is growing in the Senate.
Republicans see Clinton as an entirely beatable candidate and believe this week’s scathing criticism from FBI Director James Comey over her private email system can be used against her.
But few in the GOP are convinced that Trump will win or that he is even the favorite, and this week’s meetings — and the events on the campaign trail surrounding them — did little to change things.
Several Republican senators said the meeting was far from a disaster.
While Trump traded barbs for three to four minutes, the vast majority of the meeting was positive.
“You in the media have it all wrong. That stuff was only three or four minutes. The rest of it was positive. It was a good meeting. We talked mostly about how do we unify to beat Hillary Clinton and fix the Obama economy,” said one Republican senator who has long been critical of Trump and will skip the convention in Cleveland.
Others took away the fact that Trump could be useful in delivering attacks on their Democratic opponents that would resonate with white working-class voters, his most loyal demographic.
At the same time, observers said Trump did little to move the needle during what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised would be a frank talk.
Republicans opposed to him being the GOP standard-bearer didn’t change their opinions, nor did his fans.
“I don’t think anybody came away with any higher opinion of Trump’s chances but I do think that Trump could be useful in attacking their opponents,” said a Senate Republican aide. “In a room full of people looking for any kind of silver lining, that was it. But there was no greater hope he can win.”
House lawmakers felt similarly.
“I don’t know that anything moved appreciably,” said a Republican strategist for a major business group who spoke with House lawmakers and aides Friday about Trump’s visit.
“For guys looking for more for the same and feeling underwhelmed by Trump, they left feeling exactly the same. If you were positively inclined before the meeting, you’re probably the same there too.”
“Anybody that was on the fence didn’t come off the fence,” the source added.
Republican Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), who does not support Trump, said he didn’t think the meeting changed any minds.
“For me it didn’t make a difference. I heard from a lot of my colleagues in the House that they liked him more,” he said. “He’s likeable. Certainly people have strong disagreements with many of his statements but it doesn’t strike people as malicious but more like an uncle who says things that shouldn’t be said.”
Trump made members of the audience wince when he pledged to defend all articles in the Constitution, including, he vowed, Article 12, which does not exist because the founding document has only seven.
“Is it a little uncomfortable? Yeah,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R), a Tea Party conservative from South Carolina. “Is it a big deal in the greater scheme of things? No.”
But Mulvaney also said the reception was generally positive.
Trump remains disconcerting to lawmakers because just as they’re starting to feel more comfortable with him, he says something puzzling or outrageous.
In an interview with The New York Times this week he did not rule out the possibility that he would opt out of serving as president if he beats Hillary Clinton to win the White House.
“I’ll let you know how I feel after it happens,” he said.
Trump told senators Thursday that he could win in Illinois, Michigan and Connecticut, states that have voted consistently Democratic in recent presidential elections.
He also told them that he would not write off New York, where he grew up and has had a major media presence for decades, and would not ignore California either, though he acknowledged receiving advice not to spend any time in the state.
Lawmakers questioned Trump’s political calculus in light of a new Field poll showing him trailing Clinton by 30 points in California in a head-to-head matchup.
Trump also appeared to be confused during a confrontation with Flake, who he predicted would lose re-election. It’s his home state colleague, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who’s running for re-election this year. Flake is up in 2018.
Some lawmakers where left scratching their head after Trump’s speech in Cincinnati on Wednesday night that veered all over the map.
Even though the speech was unorthodox, to say the least, it didn’t get all negative reviews.
Joe Scarborough, the former Republican Congressman from Florida and host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” declared afterward that the audience loved it and his co-host, Mika Brzezinski, said, “He’s got his groove back.”
Veteran GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, a former Senate aide, said the different views on Trump’s trip highlight his unique candidacy.
“What’s appealing about Donald Trump to millions of voters is that he’s not a Washington insider. At the same time, he doesn’t understand the levers of power, how the political process works and how to run a campaign,” he said.
“We’re seeing the turbulence around it right now, through some of the mistaken comments he’s made to having challenges assembling a professional staff,” Bonjean added