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Trump gets a pass from Senate Republicans

A growing number of GOP senators have said the White House staffer who joked about Sen. John McCain dying should apologize — but not to the president when he visited the Hill Tuesday.
Image: President Donald Trump stops to speak with members of the media as he attends the Senate Republicans' weekly policy lunch
No tough questions for Trump from GOP senators Tuesday.Leah Millis / Reuters

WASHINGTON — When they met with President Donald Trump in the Capitol Tuesday, Senate Republicans could have asked him about the Russia probe hanging over his administration, or the White House staffer who joked about cancer-stricken Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., dying, or his promotion of Chinese company ZTE despite the misgivings of national security experts. They didn't.

And so the Republican Party's historic symbol made for a fascinating metaphorical mashup: the elephants in the room didn't want to talk about the elephants in the room.

Instead, after Trump spoke of shared legislative accomplishments, his confidence that Republicans can win in the upcoming midterm elections and the foreign policy victories he expects in the near future, there were just two questions — statements, really, according to Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. — about immigration and about how well Republicans have done with power in Washington.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., urged Trump to talk about the GOP's record, and passed out copies of of a pocket card with accomplishments — from military spending to the confirmation of Supreme court Justice Neil Gorsuch — listed on it.

"We were very positive in there," Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said. "We mainly listened."

Outside the room, crises and controversies may be swirling around the president and his allies. Inside, the mood was one of calm confidence, said those present, with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul telling NBC News Trump was "very optimistic" about the GOP's hopes of keeping or expanding its Senate majority.

"He thinks our chances in 2018 are much better than have been reported," Paul said.

Trump vowed to campaign hard for Republican candidates, according to senators who were present. As if to provide proof, Indiana Republican Senate nominee Mike Braun — for whom Trump held a rally last week — was on hand in the Capitol. And Trump joked with the senators that he'd work so assiduously to oust West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin that he might as well move to the state, according to Kennedy.

That's music to the ears of Senate Republicans, who know the party's base voters are most responsive to Trump.

"He's going to send a message that in order for him to be successful, he’s going to have a Republican Congress as well," Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said.

Still, in the hallways of the Capitol, Republican senators were less reluctant to discuss their concerns with various aspects of the Trump presidency.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, suggested he might call for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to resign — not over a barrage of stories about Pruitt's use of government resources but over waivers he's granted that Grassley believes are undermining ethanol producers. And senators said they're worried about the implications of loosening U.S. restrictions on ZTE.

Rounds said questions about ZTE and other foreign companies that could be threats to U.S. national security represent "a concern that is not going to go away in the short term."

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, both said Tuesday that Kelly Sadler, the White House staffer who joked about McCain, should apologize, as a growing chorus of their GOP colleagues said the same. Just not to the president's face.