WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is winning over his Capitol Hill critics after a one-day charm offensive that again demonstrates the power of his personality to drive his White House bid.
Trump’s closed-door charisma on May 12 triggered a fresh wave of GOP optimism across Washington, even as deep concerns remain about the notoriously unpredictable New York billionaire’s evolving policy prescriptions and brash tone heading into the general election.
For a day at least, Trump silenced his own party’s skeptics with a series of private meetings with leading congressional Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan among them, on their turf.
Afterward, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee praised the very establishment he has spent months bashing at his raucous rallies.
“We had a great meeting today, and I think we agree on a lot of things,” Trump told Fox News Channel of his meeting with Ryan.
The day marked a significant step forward for political leaders desperate to unify a fractured Republican Party. GOP leaders in the House and Senate offered an overwhelmingly positive response that focused largely on Trump’s charm behind closed doors, while acknowledging that differences remain.
“I thought he has a very good personality. He’s a very warm and genuine person,” said Ryan, who declined to endorse Trump after the meeting at the Republican National Committee headquarters but suggested he was moving in that direction.
“We will have policy disputes. There is no two ways about that. The question is, can we unify on the common core principles that make our party,” Ryan added. “And I’m very encouraged that the answer to that question is yes.”
At the same time, Trump signaled a willingness to moderate some of his more controversial positions, including his repeated call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
“It’s a temporary ban, it hasn’t been called for yet, nobody’s done it,” he said on the radio show Kilmeade & Friends. ”This is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on.”
And on trade, another key sticking point, Trump told The Associated Press earlier this week that his position isn’t all that different from that of the GOP establishment: “I don’t think we’re really far off. I just want to make great deals.”
The overwhelming focus on Thursday, however, was personality.
“The secret weapon is his personality,” said Trump adviser Barry Bennett. “He just has a really big personality and when he looks at you and talks to you, he can own you.”
One of Trump’s most aggressive Washington critics, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, seemed to agree.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” said Graham, who spoke to Trump on the phone ahead of the meetings. Not long ago, Graham called Trump a “nut job” and a “loser as a person.” After speaking with Trump on the phone, the Senator softened his stance.
Graham said he still won’t endorse Trump, but he said Trump won the Republican nomination, so the “insults will stop with me.”
High-profile Republican critics remain, however, even if they were silent.
Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 nominee, lashed out at Trump the day before for so far refusing to make public his tax returns and has vowed not to vote for him.
Like Romney, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush plan to avoid the party’s July national convention, where Trump will formally become his party’s Presidential nominee.
Former Romney adviser Kevin Madden said Trump’s outreach may resonate with some Republicans who are “willing to listen in the interest of uniting the party ahead of the general election.”
Madden noted, however, that Republican officials likely won’t blindly trust the political outsider.
“Reagan said ‘trust, but verify,’ and that verification process will look differently depending on the Republican, but some are interested in trying to learn more,” Madden said.
“Hillary Clinton’s potential as a unifying force for even those uneasy about Trump should not be underestimated.”
Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., was practically elated about how well everything went. “A couple more meetings like this, a phone call or two, I think we’ll be all there,” Collins said.
By Steve Peoples and Jill Colvin. AP writers Erica Werner, Mary Clare Jalonik and Richard Lardner contributed