President Donald Trump arrived on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for perhaps one of the larger social gatherings still happening in Washington amid the coronavirus — the weekly Senate Republican lunch.
And Trump had a message for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders: Get tough, or else.
Behind closed doors, Trump was unscripted and honest with the 53 GOP senators. He touted his poll numbers, dismissed rival Joe Biden and told his Republican allies to “be tough” against Democrats this fall.
Despite House passage of a “liberal wishlist” $3 trillion pandemic aid package, Republicans insisted they’ll wait until June to consider whether more help is necessary.
“We had a great meeting — all of the Republican senators were there,” Trump told reporters afterward.
Washington’s power centers are at a political and economic crossroads as Congress and the White House consider next steps in the pandemic response.
While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led Democrats in approving an aid package last week, Senate Republicans say they’re not interested in providing more funds until they gauge how the $2 trillion in already-approved relief is being spent.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said there’s no urgency to act.
“We need to assess what we’ve already done, take a look at what worked and what didn’t,” said McConnell, R-Ky. “We’ll discuss the way forward in the next couple of weeks.”
Republicans dismissed Pelosi’s bill as a liberal wish list. They prefer to wait and see if efforts to open up the economy can provide a kick-start and lessen the need for more aid.
Trump’s visit to the weekly luncheon was billed by the White House as an opportunity for the president to thank senators for their work in fighting the virus outbreak and shoring up the economy, officials said.
It was also an opportunity to talk directly to them — without media interference.
As senators convened behind closed doors, the discussion swiftly turned to politics.
Trump’s “enthusiasm” for the campaign against Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee, was clear, senators said.
The president warned them that Democrats are tougher than Republicans and won’t hesitate to go on offense. He revisited well-worn topics including the investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and ousted former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to one Republican lawmaker.
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“He admonished all of us to be tough, fight back,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters afterward.
Democrats are eager to flip control of the Senate as voters evaluate Trump’s handling of the pandemic crisis. Cornyn said the president explained to the senators, “It’s going to be a pitched battle.”
Trump was joined by son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser, and his new chief of staff Mark Meadows, a former congressman.
The Capitol building remains largely closed with the House away because of health risks, but the Senate returned to session in early May.
The GOP lunch is among the few known gatherings still happening in the nation’s capital, which remains under stay-home orders through June 8. Since March, one GOP senator, several House members, and dozens of Capitol Hill workers and staff have tested positive for the virus.
Gone was the buffet spread, with hot and cold offerings. Instead, it was prewrapped sandwiches and salads, chips, and water. The senators gathered in a bigger room across the street from the Capitol rather than the stately one just steps from the Senate chamber. Seating was done in a socially distant three to a table. Many senators wore masks.
Trump wasn’t the only White House official strategizing with GOP leaders in the Senate.
Tuesday brought a full day of administration appearances on Capitol Hill. Earlier, Vice President Mike Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin huddled with McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy for a previously scheduled meeting where they discussed the Wuhan virus response and the economy.
The Associated Press contributed to this article