Donald Trump, Paul Ryan meet in Washington amid circus-like atmosphere
Presumptive Republican nominee, Speaker of the House talk party unity as protests rage outside
Donald Trump, a man of discerning tastes, might have approved of the U.S. Senate cafeteria's lunch menu today. It was, after all, Taco Salad Thursday.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who was savaged online earlier this month after declaring in a tweet his love for Hispanics and "taco bowls," could have sampled some of the Capitol Hill Tex-Mex fare himself. Trump was in Washington to speak with conservative lawmakers and leaders in a series of sit-downs billed as "party unity" discussions.
His first meeting of the morning, a talk with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at the Republican National Committee, was the political centrepiece of this trip to the capital. Ryan and Trump have recently exchanged barbs over the Speaker's hesitance to formally endorse the billionaire real-estate magnate.
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"I was very encouraged by this meeting," Ryan told reporters following his 45 minutes with Trump.
"I do believe that we are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified, to bridge our gaps and differences," Ryan added, calling the dialogue "very pleasant."
The pleasantries did not, however, extend to outside the Republican National Committee headquarters.
Johnny Rice, a minister, says he is "worshipping" for peace and for Trump <a href="https://t.co/jcbmQIxgAL">pic.twitter.com/jcbmQIxgAL</a>—@matt_kwong
Protesters and Trump supporters clashed at times in fiery crosstalk.
The arrival of Trump, a former reality TV star and showman extraordinaire, drew a crowd of characters as colourful as the campaign rhetoric he's used to fire up his base of angry voters.
Costumes, singing, bagpipes, chants and a man promoting his T-shirt line invaded the usually buttoned-up environs of the RNC.
"Hey look, I'm here to unite everyone," one protester taunted in a mock-New York accent, wearing an oversized papier-mâché Trump headpiece and holding canvas loot sacks painted with dollar signs. "All you brown people, all you black people. All the women. The women love me, you know what I mean?"
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Tighe Barry, the man in the Trump mask, was with the anti-war group Code Pink, but he was soon competing with Johnny Rice, a Christian minister, who began blowing into a ram's horn to drown out Barry's routine.
"Stop these false accusations against Trump," Rice preached into a megaphone. "Everybody knows Trump, God, he's a good man for the people, God. In Jesus' name, stop all this race-baiting in the mighty name of Jesus."
When another Code Pink activist began to address the crowd, Trump supporter Cecelia Chambers, 78, snatched her microphone away.
"He's a tough man. I'm a lady Trump. He's a tough cookie," she interrupted.
Youth activists with United We Dream, an advocacy group for undocumented immigrants, decried Trump's incendiary remarks describing Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers, as well as the candidate's plan to deport some 11 million so-called "unauthorized Americans."
Their chants of "Undocumented! Unafraid!" competed with the cries of Chambers, who hoisted a cardboard sign describing herself as a "senior lady" and a Democrat who nevertheless believes Trump is "the only man who can save our country."
"He's not a racist. He's not a hater," she said.
"Yes he is," a man shot back.
"He's not, he's not! He's not a hatemonger. Stop ISIS. All the parties are rigged," Chambers said, shaking her sign at reporters.
"I'm here to give an alternate sound to all the protest," says Ben Williams <a href="https://t.co/p4KsjglXf9">pic.twitter.com/p4KsjglXf9</a>—@matt_kwong
Nearby, Ben Williams, dressed in a tartan kilt, blared away on a set of bagpipes.
"I'm here to give an alternate sound to all the protest that's going on," he said.
Ken Greene walked by wearing a Trump mask and handed out business cards for his "Dump Trump" T-shirt line.
"Twenty-five dollars, but that includes shipping and handling," he pitched. "And you get a free sticker."
The spectacle was a little bit much for Alex Sheppard, who stopped to watch the rally on his way to do some mission work with a volunteer project.
"Um, it's different," he said, as a "Bikers for Trump" demonstrator waved his sign across the street.
"I think it's a testament to Trump, and what he brings."
Trump's ascendance to Republican presidential front-runner has stoked impassioned debate both inside and outside the party, and prompted fears of a rising national tide of xenophobia. Conservatives have become deeply divided over whether to support Trump, while his Democratic critics have portrayed him as a demagogue with fascist tendencies.
One way or another, a Trump appearance is a big event.
Today's crowd of reporters, protesters and counter-protesters caused one Republican lawmaker to vault over a fence so he could enter the RNC building unimpeded.
When the United We Dream activists moved to the south end of the RNC building, Trump supporter John Owen began taking their photos. The 67-year-old, who is originally from San Francisco, couldn't resist engaging with the demonstrators.
"All these people here, I'd like to see how many of them are here legally. If not, they're all criminals," he said. "That's what Trump was saying when they came across the border. He's not a racist, he's never shown a bit of racism, he's just stating a fact. You break the law, you're a criminal."
Trump has won Owen's vote for the upcoming general election. But what the candidate still covets is broader public backing from the Republican top brass.
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While senators who met Trump described him as "warm" and "personable," Ryan stopped short of giving Trump his formal endorsement.
"In 45 minutes, you don't litigate all of the process and all of the issues we're talking about," Ryan said.
Perhaps not. But time is scarce in the run-up to the Republican National Convention in July. With about two months to go, Republican delegates who can't foresee themselves backing Trump have been reportedly giving up their tickets, adding pressure to send out a message of party unity.