A defiant Donald Trump made it clear he won’t change his brash tone or message as he courted anxious Republican lawmakers last week, blaming the media for stumbles that continue to alarm GOP leaders and energise Democrats with voting less than three months away.
The New York billionaire repeatedly called for unity in his second Capitol Hill tour in three months, but he also threatened would-be party critics on a day that was designed to rally anxious Republicans behind him. Deflecting questions about his discipline in public comments, Trump insisted his recent praise for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was taken out of context and ignored fresh concern about a campaign tweet widely condemned as anti-Semitic, according to Republicans who attended closed-door meetings.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake declined to address reports that Trump threatened to attack him politically during a testy exchange that Senator John McCain said “everybody was talking about” afterward.
Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who wasn’t in Thursday’s meeting, fired back at Trump, who reportedly called him a loser during the private gathering.
“We haven’t seen a personality like his too much in the Midwest. Eastern, privileged, wealthy bully,” said Kirk, who faces a tough re-election contest and has declined to endorse Trump.
There was a more cooperative tone inside Trump’s meeting with House Republicans, even if sceptical lawmakers didn’t necessarily hear what they were hoping for.
Trump’s unwillingness to moderate his tone follows repeated promises from campaign officials that he would do just that as he shifts toward the general election. While Election Day nationwide is November 8, early voting begins in some states in September.
The Republican Party remains deeply divided with its national convention less than two weeks away.
Trump’s former rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, announced Thursday he would speak at the Cleveland gathering. Yet many high-profile Republicans are refusing to go, former Republican Presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and Ohio Governor John Kasich among them.
The party strife played out as Republicans tried to focus on Democrat Hillary Clinton’s email practices, which FBI Director James Comey described as “extremely careless.”
But Trump has struggled to keep the focus on his Democratic rival.
The night before his Washington tour, he resurrected a debate over an image he tweeted depicting Clinton’s face alongside a six-pointed star over hundred-dollar bills. Many saw the symbol as a Star of David and condemned the tweet as anti-Semitic. House Speaker Paul Ryan, the nation’s top elected Republican, was among the critics.
Trump also continues to defend his praise for Hussein, the Iraqi dictator whom he described as having been effective at killing terrorists.