Donald Trump tried to assure skittish GOP lawmakers Thursday that they all share the same Republican Party goals, but Senate antagonists withheld support after a tense meeting with the presidential candidate.
Protesters chanted in sweltering heat outside, while inside a packed room at the Republican National Committee, Trump offered a simple message, according to Rep. Ken Calvert of California: "We all need to stick together. Things will all work out in November."
With GOP lawmakers unanimous in their desire to beat Hillary Clinton this fall, some welcomed the reassurance and applauded Trump's remarks. It wasn't enough for others, as lawmakers who have been wary of Trump's incendiary comments and off-putting campaign style said they remain unconvinced.
Trump defended himself against some of his harshest Senate critics. Addressing Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, he said, "Surely, you don't want Clinton." Sasse's spokesman, in a statement, said the senator considers the two presidential choices as a "Dumpster fire," adding that "nothing has changed."
In one testy exchange, Trump recognized Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona as a lawmaker critical of him. Flake referenced Trump's criticism last year of his colleague, Sen. John McCain, who was captured and spent 5 ½ years in a Vietnamese prison.
Flake said he wanted to talk to Trump about those statements. The exchange left Flake unwilling to back the nominee.
"My position remains, I want to support the nomination. I really do. I just can't support him given the things that he's said," Flake told reporters later.
The senator has differed with some of Trump's more controversial statements throughout his campaign, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in May:
One week after presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump's call to ban Muslim visitors, Sen. Jeff Flake (R) visited a mosque with his family, the Arizona Republic reported.
"We are a better country than has been on display this week," Sen. Flake told a warm audience. "I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in America, as well as those of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhism and other faiths and other traditions, hold to the American ideal and the Constitutional tenet of freedom of religion."
Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois wasn't in Thursday's meeting, during which Trump supposedly called him a loser. Asked if Trump could win his home state in November, Kirk said, "I don't think so."
Trump's appearance came on a circuslike day on Capitol Hill, with FBI Director James Comey testifying to a House committee about Clinton's email practices, summoned by Republican lawmakers furious about his decision, announced Tuesday, that Clinton should not face criminal charges.
Dozens of protesters awaited Trump, shouting slogans and waving signs that said Trump is "Dangerous, Divisive, Deceitful." Protesters chanted, "Donald Trump, he's a fraud. Sending our jobs far abroad." They held up large photos of GOP lawmakers, including vulnerable senators, wearing Trump campaign hats, as the billionaire arrived with daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, an outspoken Trump critic, said there was a lack of energy in the room. "You could feel it," he said.
"I'm not a Never Trump guy, I've said I want to get there. I'm a Republican and I want to support the nominee," Kinzinger said after leaving the meeting early. "But things like the Saddam Hussein comment are not helping me get there," Kinzinger added.
He was referring to Trump having praised the late Iraqi dictator's terrorist-killing prowess. Trump defended himself over those comments Thursday, telling lawmakers it was an example of the media twisting his words, according to Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a strong Trump supporter.
Cramer paraphrased what Trump said: "Here I was very critical of Saddam Hussein, saying he's a very, very bad guy, evil guy. And I wake up and I look at the media and they say I love Saddam Hussein."
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump sought to put the Saddam comment "into context, so people understood the context in which he was speaking about getting tough on terrorism."
Trump offered some what they wanted to hear. He talked of repealing President Barack Obama's health law, reducing regulatory burdens, overhauling tax laws and getting the Supreme Court to "be one that is more reflective of the values of the country," according to Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga.
Ryan told reporters later, "We clearly have a presumptive nominee who wants to work with us on moving this agenda forward."
But others sounded unimpressed.
Republicans pressed Trump on whether he would defend Article 1 of the Constitution on the separation of powers; Trump said he would defend "1, 2, 3 to 12," said South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford. In fact, there are only seven articles.
"I think it was the normal stream of consciousness that's long on hyperbole and short on facts," said Sanford, who dismissed the alternative — Clinton.
It came on the heels of a fiery Trump speech Wednesday night in which he defended his retweet of the image of a six-pointed star alongside a picture of Clinton on a field of hundred-dollar bills. Many saw the symbol as a Star of David and considered the image to be anti-Semitic, and Ryan and others criticized the retweet. Instead of focusing on Clinton during his remarks Wednesday in Cincinnati, as Republican leaders would have liked, Trump mixed his attacks on the presumptive Democratic nominee with a defense of the tweet as well as earlier remarks complimenting Saddam. Trump argues the star in his tweet was a regular star that a sheriff might use.