Trump returns to Capitol Hill and meets with Republican lawmakers, a first since Jan. 6 attack

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump is making a triumphant return to Capitol Hill on Thursday, meeting with House and Senate Republicans, his first since urging a mob to “fight like hell” ahead of the Jan.6, 2021 attack. GOP lawmakers find themselves newly energized and reinvigorated by his bid to retake the White House.

Despite the federal charges against 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. He has successfully purged the GOP of critics, silenced most skeptics and enticed once-critical lawmakers aboard his MAGA-fueled campaign.

A packed room of House Republicans sang “Happy Birthday” to Trump in the private breakfast meeting at GOP campaign headquarters across the street from the Capitol. The lawmakers gave him a baseball and bat from the annual congressional game.

“We’re excited to welcome President Trump back,” said House Speaker Mike Johnson a day earlier.

The Republican speaker had demurred over whether he’s asked Trump to respect the peaceful transfer of presidential power and commit to not doing another Jan. 6. “Of course he respects that, we all do, and we’ve all talked about it, ad nauseum.”

Trump told Johnson Thursday he thinks the speaker is doing a “terrific job,” according to a Republican in the private meeting and granted anonymity to discuss it. Trump asked Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the speaker’s chief Republican critic, if she was being nice to Johnson, another Republican said.

Trump is expected to be delivering remarks and discussing issues animating his campaign — including mass immigration deportations but also tax cuts and other priorities for a potential second term.

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

But the private meetings with House and later in the afternoon Senate Republicans so close to the Capitol are infused with symbolism of Trump’s return as the U.S. president who threatened the American tradition of the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

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

Dunn spoke of the “irony” of Trump returning to the area and lawmakers 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.”

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

Many of those who once stood up to Trump are long gone from office and the Republicans who remain seem increasingly enthusiastic about the possibility of him retaking the White House, and the down-ballot windfall that could mean for their own GOP majorities in Congress.

Johnson met with senators on Wednesday ahead of Trump’s arrival as the Republicans mapped out potential priorities.

Outgoing Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who once blamed Trump for the “disgraceful” attack that he called an “insurrection” now endorses the party’s presumptive nominee and said: “Of course I’ll be at the meeting.”

Sen. John Thune, the GOP whip who is vying to replace McConnell as leader, told The Associated Press that he was interested in hearing from Trump about the fall election. “I think there’s an opportunity there to really make this a big win,” he said.

As democracies around the world come under threat from a far-rightward shift, experts warn that the U.S. system, once seemingly immune from authoritarian impulses, is at risk of populist and extremist forces like those that Trump inspired to sack the Capitol.

“This is just another example of House Republicans bending the knee to Donald Trump,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus.

Making Jan. 6 a cornerstone of his reelection campaign, Trump celebrates those who stormed the Capitol as “warriors” and “patriots,” and he has vowed to pardon any number of the more than 1,300 America convicted of crimes for the assault on the seat of U.S. democracy.

Moreover, Trump has vowed to seek retribution by ousting officials at the U.S. Justice Department, which is prosecuting him in a four-count indictment to overturn the election ahead of the Jan. 6 attack and another case over storing classified documents at his Mar-A-Largo home.

Republicans, particularly in the House but increasingly in the Senate, are vigorously following his lead, complaining of an unfair justice system. The House voted to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress and is re-investigating the House committee that investigated Jan. 6.

Alongside Trump, the House and Senate GOP campaign arms scored some of their highest fundraising periods yet after a jury found him guilty in the New York hush money case.

When former GOP Speaker Paul Ryan on Fox News reiterated this week that he wouldn’t be voting for Trump and wished Republicans had another choice for president, he was immediately ostracized by Trump allies.

“Paul Ryan, you’re a piece of garbage,” said Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas. “We should kick you out of the party.”

Of the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over Jan. 6 and convict him on the charge of inciting the insurrection, only a few remain in office.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah are not expected to attend Thursday’s closed-door session with Trump.

But Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said he would likely join the Trump meeting at GOP senators’ campaign headquarters, expecting “he’s going to be the next president, so you have to work” together.

Asked if he was concerned about the direction of the Trump Republican Party, Cassidy: “Let the day’s own troubles be sufficient for the day. You can fill yourself up with anxiety about tomorrow, but will it change a thing? No.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who confronted Trump at times but did not join in the vote to convict him in the Capitol attack, said he did not expect the meeting to be contentious as Republicans hope to seize the Senate majority this fall.

“Look, we’ve got to win. And our ability to get a majority in the Senate is intrinsically linked to Trump winning. So we’re like, one team, one vision. And I think that will be largely what we talk about,” Tillis said.

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Farnoush Amiri and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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