— -- Nearly two months after his first visit Capitol Hill to charm the GOP, Donald Trump is returning to Washington Thursday for meetings with rank-and-file members of Congress grappling with the potential down-ballot effects of his controversial presidential campaign.
While Republican leaders spoke cautiously of party unity after huddling with Trump following his victory in the primaries, backlash to the real estate mogul's candidacy has complicated Republicans’ plans on Capitol Hill, and potentially endangered their House and Senate majorities.
Since then, Trump has done little to reassure Republicans hoping for a more disciplined candidate. His attacks against a federal judge of Mexican heritage presiding over a Trump University lawsuit overshadowed House Republicans’ rollout of their election-year agenda, and insinuations that President Obama and the Orlando nightclub shooting left Republicans scratching their heads.
At one point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, stopped taking questions about Trump at his weekly news conferences, and recently said he “clearly needs to change” to win in November. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, who quietly endorsed Trump in an op-ed in his hometown newspaper, has repeatedly criticized the presumptive nominee in the month since.
“I expect to cringe a lot between now and November,” Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota, one of Trump’s early Hill supporters, said in an interview. “I didn’t endorse a perfect candidate.”
Vulnerable Republicans, like Reps. Bob Dold, R-Illinois, and Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, are scrambling to distance themselves from the New York billionaire. The warier GOP members –- many of whom are skipping the GOP convention in two weeks -- aren’t sure they’ll meet with him Thursday.
“I haven’t looked at my schedule yet. I’m very wrapped up at the moment,” said, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Dold, the Illinois Republican from a purple Chicago-area district, won’t attend Thursday’s meeting.
But even some skeptics, like Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, a conservative who endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz for president, want to hear what Trump has to say.
“I’ve got too many questions,” he said wearily in an interview Wednesday.
“I’m interested in what he’s like in a smaller, personal setting,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, another former Cruz supporter. “All I’ve seen of him is on television, on his show or giving a speech.”
Even Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisconsin, who vowed not to support Trump in December, plans on attending the meeting, a spokesperson confirmed.
Trump’s boosters in Congress say he’s different behind closed doors.
“I do think that it’s important for our members to take the opportunity to get to know Donald Trump. Every time they do, I think their appreciation for him goes up,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, a potential vice-presidential pick.
For his part, Trump has repeatedly said he can win against Hillary Clinton without Republican help.
“We need unity in the Republican Party,” Trump said at a rally in North Carolina Wednesday. “I think I win without the unity, but we need unity in the Republican Party.”