Donald Trump’s day on Capitol Hill Thursday was over in four hours, but it drew a media mob not seen since the Pope came to Washington last October.
Hundreds of reporters and TV news crews scrambled around the Capitol Hill neighborhood as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Trump arrived with a lengthy, polished motorcade. Trump attended four meetings with Republican leaders who have largely opposed him throughout his presidential campaign.
A few dozen protesters turned out at the locations of each meeting, but they were far outnumbered by journalists. Reporters and onlookers never got closer than a few hundred yards from Trump, whose motorcade used side and rear entrances for the meetings. But both groups created a colorful scene near the Capitol.
“Mr. Ryan will meet with me today, and he will do what I say. Because Donald leads this party now,” shouted a man wearing a giant papier-mache model of Trump’s head and carrying cartoonish moneybags outside the Republican National Committee.
Signs reading “R.I.P. GOP,” “Stop The Hate” and “Here To Stay” were held aloft by Hispanic protesters at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
“Say no, fight back,” these protesters chanted. Others carried a banner reading “United We Dream.”
One sign said simply, “Trump is a Racist.”
Trump was in Washington to meet with congressional Republicans and shore up his ties with the so-called “establishment” figures of the party he now leads. The meetings were called hastily after House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin announced last week that he was “not yet ready” to support Trump.
Trump’s quick sweep of a large GOP presidential nomination field has visibly split the party. Ryan and other prominent conservatives had distanced themselves from the wealthy real estate investor prior to Thursday’s meetings.
Many Republicans remain persuaded that Trump cannot defeat Hillary Clinton or Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the November general election, and they believe his campaign could hurt Republicans in down-ballot races.
The GOP holds a majority of 246 to 188 seats in the House of Representatives; but the party’s Senate majority is thinner, with 54 Republicans to 44 for the Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the Democratic minority.
Trump started with a 9 a.m. meeting with Ryan and Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus at the RNC’s headquarters near the Capitol, followed by a meeting with top House GOP leaders.
That was followed by a conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and NRSC Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi at the NRSC headquarters, which oversees campaigns for GOP Senate candidates, also just a few blocks from the Capitol.
Throngs of reporters at each location were shut out. Trump briefly waved and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd at the front of the Republican National Committee. He waved again outside the Senatorial Committee meeting, before leaving Capitol Hill around 1 p.m.
Despite the crush of journalists, little was reported about the meetings.
The RNC meeting was “a very positive step toward party unity,” Priebus Tweeted, while Trump and Ryan issued a joint statement that took pains to downplay their differences.
“This was our first meeting, but it was a very positive step towards unification,” the statement said.
Ryan shed little light on the meeting when speaking with reporters afterward. He declined to say if he would support the billionaire and said unification is a process.
“It's no secret that Donald Trump and I have had our differences. We talked about those differences today,” Ryan said. “I was very encouraged by what I heard. This takes time. You don't put it together in 45 minutes. It’s very important that we don’t fake unifying, we don’t pretend unification."
The meeting was “very good, productive,” McConnell told reporters, but Senate Republicans were tight-lipped.
Trump never actually set foot in the Capitol itself, but congressional Democrats matched his schedule with press events throughout the morning and early afternoon.
Shortly after the 9 a.m. Trump-Ryan summit kicked off, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada took to the Senate floor to bash Trump as well as congressional Republicans who, he said, have largely followed Trump’s agenda.
“It was an obstructionist, anti-woman, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, anti-middle-class, anti-environment and anti-Obama and anti-everything Republican Party of the last eight years that made Donald Trump a reality,” Reid said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California took her own swings at him a short time later, as Trump was heading to the NRSC.
“I hope the one thing that comes out of (the meetings) is the decision to lift the debate to a different place worthy of the office of president of the United States, worthy of the American people. That would be progress," Pelosi said in a press conference on the other side of the Capitol. "Because right now, they’ve taken this discussion to such a low place.”
Senate Democrats tied Trump to Republican lawmakers at a mid-afternoon press conference.
“It was theater not just because of the spectacle of cameras and protesters,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), “but because when it comes to policy differences that need to be worked out between the nominee and congressional Republicans, there really aren’t that many.”