World

Donald Trump returns to Capitol Hill and whips up Republican legislators

The former US president was embraced by Republican legislators who find themselves newly energised by his bid to retake the White House.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington (Evan Vucci/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington (Evan Vucci/AP) (Evan Vucci/AP)

Donald Trump made a return on Thursday to Capitol Hill, whipping up US House and Senate Republicans in his first meetings since the January 6 2021 attacks.

He was embraced by Republican legislators who find themselves newly energised by his bid to retake the White House.

Despite pending federal charges against Mr Trump for conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, and his recent guilty verdict in an unrelated hush money trial, the Republican former president arrived emboldened as the party’s presumptive nominee.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak to reporters at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington (Evan Vucci/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak to reporters at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington (Evan Vucci/AP) (Evan Vucci/AP)

He has successfully purged the Republican Party of critics, silenced most sceptics and enticed once-critical legislators aboard his MAGA-fuelled campaign.

A packed room of House of Representatives Republicans sang Happy Birthday to Mr Trump in a private breakfast meeting at Republican Party campaign headquarters across the street from the Capitol.

The legislators gave him a baseball and bat from the annual congressional game.

Mr Trump bragged that even his telephone rallies for legislators could draw bigger crowds than mega-popstar Taylor Swift, who has yet to make any endorsement.

“There’s tremendous unity in the Republican Party,” Mr Trump said in brief remarks later at Senate Republican Party headquarters.

Mr Trump spent about an hour each with House and Senate Republicans delivering free-wheeling remarks, fielding questions and discussing issues – including Russia and immigration, tax cuts and other priorities for a potential second term.

During the morning session, Mr Trump said he thinks House speaker Mike Johnson is doing a “terrific job”, according to a Republican in the private breakfast meeting.

Mr Trump asked Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the speaker’s chief Republican critic, if she was being “nice” to Mr Johnson, another Republican said.

“President Trump brought an extraordinary amount of energy, excitement and enthusiasm this morning,” Mr Johnson said afterwards, noting high fundraising tallies since the guilty verdict.

“We’re feeling good.”

The Republican speaker had demurred earlier over whether he has asked Mr Trump to respect the peaceful transfer of presidential power and commit to not doing another January 6.

He said: “Of course he respects that, we all do, and we’ve all talked about it, ad nauseum.”

Thursday afternoon offered the first encounter in years between Mr Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who once blamed Mr Trump for the “disgraceful” attack that he called an “insurrection” but now endorses the party’s presumptive nominee.

Mr McConnell said Mr Trump received standing ovations from the senators and the two “had a really positive meeting”.

The senator said: “He and I got a chance to talk a little bit, shook hands a few times.”

Many potential priorities for a new White House administration are being formulated by a constellation of outside groups, including Project 2025, laying the groundwork for executive and legislative actions, though Mr Trump has made clear he has his own agenda.

On one major controversial issue, Mr Trump told legislators that abortion rules should be left to the states and said he supported exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother, legislators said.

“Anybody who thought that this president was going to be down after the sham trial, it’s only giving him even more energy,” said Representative Tom Emmer, the Republican Party whip.

“Donald Trump is crushing this election.”

But Mr Trump’s private meetings with House and Senate Republicans so close to the Capitol were infused with the symbolism of his return as the US president who threatened the American tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.

“It’s frustrating,” said former US Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who made his own unsuccessful run for Congress as a Maryland Democrat in the aftermath of January 6, the day when police engaged in hand-to-hand fighting to stop Trump supporters who stormed the building in an effort to overturn Joe Biden’s election.

Mr Dunn spoke of the “irony” of Mr Trump returning to the area and legislators now embracing him.

“It just shows the lack of backbone they have when they’re truly putting party and person over country,” he said.

“And it’s sad.”

Mr Biden was overseas on Thursday attending a summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations, but the president’s campaign unveiled a new ad blaming Mr Trump for lighting the “fire” of January 6 and threatening democracy.