Republican senators declined to press President Donald Trump during a closed-door lunch on Tuesday about a White House aide’s derogatory remark about Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and about the president’s tweets about Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE, according to multiple senators who were in the room, despite having raised serious concerns about both subjects.
“We’re very excited about his enthusiasm and the successes that he has had,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said.
GOP lawmakers have uniformly criticized the White House’s response to communications aide Kelly Sadler’s reported comments in which she dismissed McCain’s opposition to CIA Director-designate Gina Haspel, saying the longtime senator is “dying anyway.” McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer last year and has been receiving treatment in Arizona for the past five months.
The White House has said the matter was dealt with “internally.” Sadler called Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, to apologize. But Sadler has not yet done so publicly.
Republican senators told The Daily Beast that the weekly lunch—which typically focuses on policy issues and, more recently, the GOP’s strategy for the midterm elections—would not be the appropriate venue to raise their concerns about Sadler’s remarks.
“That’s not what we do in these meetings. No one would have ever brought up something like that,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who characterized the president’s lengthy remarks as “a summary of all that’s happening around the world and here.”
A handful of Republican senators also raised concerns this week after the president, in a tweet, pledged to work with Chinese President Xi Jinping to save ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications firm that has evaded U.S. sanctions. U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned that the company’s products could pose national security risks.
The Daily Beast spoke with a dozen Republican senators who were in the room for the duration of the mid-day meeting on Capitol Hill with the president, who spoke at length about his accomplishments and other policy issues, with a heavy focus on trade and foreign policy pressure-points including North Korea, China and Iran.
“The president was guarded but optimistic,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told The Daily Beast when asked about Trump’s outlook on North Korea. “He talked about that at length. The president’s not naive about this. I think there’s feeling around the world that there could be a new day there. But we’re not there yet.”
According to multiple senators, there was only time for two questions directed toward the president because he spent most of the time addressing them. One was from Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who asked about immigration. The other was from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who asked about messaging and congressional Republicans’ track record, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said. There were no confrontations, according to multiple attendees.
“There really wasn’t a discussion,” Kennedy said. “We listened to the president talk about a pretty impressive array of subjects. ... We just listened and enjoyed the discussion.”