Washington: Donald Trump pledged adherence to basic Republican Party goals Thursday as he sought to win over rank-and-file GOP lawmakers skeptical he can beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the fall.
Trump arrived with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner to meet behind closed doors with House Republicans, his first such meeting with the full House GOP conference. Dozens of protesters awaited him, shouting slogans and waving signs that said Trump was "Dangerous, Divisive, Deceitful."
Inside, Trump offered some Republicans what they wanted to hear. He talked of repealing President 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.
Trump delivered a "great unifying speech," Price said, and his listeners were "very receptive."
But Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, an outspoken Trump skeptic, 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, referencing Trump's recent praise for the late Iraqi dictator's terrorist-killing prowess, comments that Trump defended Wednesday night.
Trump was to meet later in the morning with Republican senators. The gatherings came less than two weeks before the GOP's national convention, which a number of leading Republicans are skipping, including some in Congress.
While Trump was greeted enthusiastically by a handful of lawmakers, many others have expressed skepticism, criticism or outright opposition to a presidential candidate who has flouted conservative principles and divided the Republican Party. A number of lawmakers planned to skip Thursday's meetings.
Trump's appearance came on the heels of a fiery speech in which he defended his retweet of a star symbol many saw as a Star of David, an image that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and others have criticised.
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 Hussein. Trump argues the star in his tweet was a regular star that a sheriff might use.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who was quick to endorse Trump but has criticised him for going off-script and lagging in fundraising, said he looks forward to "a frank exchange."
"All of us are anxious to win the presidential election," said McConnell, who recently has said Trump's campaign is improving. "I think the one thing we agree on unanimously is four more years just like the last eight is not a good place for the American people."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, in a tough re-election race, told reporters she had to attend a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at the same time as Trump's appearance.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida said he needed to check his calendar. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he was scheduled to preside over the Senate, but that others would benefit more anyway from seeing Trump.
"Obviously I'm very familiar with Donald and his positions, I just came off an 11-month campaign where he was one of my opponents," said Rubio, a former Trump rival who was often mocked by Trump as "Little Marco."
"So some of the other folks perhaps wanted to spend more time learning more about his positions."
The meetings come as two potential vice presidential picks — Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Joni Ernst of Iowa — indicated that they weren't interested in running on the same ticket as Trump.
The meetings were taking place at the political headquarters of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, within blocks of the Capitol. Trump planned to meet first with House members.
Ensuring an overheated atmosphere on Capitol Hill, FBI Director James Comey was to testify before a House committee at the same time as the Senate meeting with Trump. Comey was summoned by House Republicans who are irate over his recommendation against criminal charges for Clinton's classified email handling.
Democrats are moving to find political advantage from Trump's appearance. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which tries to elect Democrats to the House, released a new nationwide ad campaign Thursday seeking to link Republicans to Trump. The ads, focused in the districts of 10 vulnerable lawmakers, will be running on cable networks; one of them, "Sidekick," likens Trump to a schoolyard bully and congressional Republicans to the bully's sidekicks and asks: "Shouldn't they really be standing up to the bully?"