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Updated Jun 13, 2024, 8:10pm EDT
politics

Trump celebrates birthday, bashes Milwaukee, and talks up tariffs with Hill Republicans

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House Republicans sang “Happy Birthday” to Donald Trump to kick off their meeting Friday morning. What followed was a winding, hour-long discussion that saw the 78-year-old presumptive GOP nominee take shots at a king swing state city and possibly suggest a plan to eliminate personal income tax.

It was the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Hill Republicans since the Jan. 6 riots, and began a day of gatherings meant to showcase his status as the party’s leader.

As he presided at the Capitol Hill Club, the former president touched on the recent turmoil within the House GOP, jokingly telling Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. to be “nice” to Speaker Mike Johnson, whom she tried and failed to topple earlier this year. “It got a good laugh,” said Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon.

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Trump also reportedly called Milwaukee, the site of the upcoming Republican National Convention, a “horrible city.” As the comment quickly spread across the internet, some Republicans suggested it had been taken out of context, though they seemed to disagree on what, exactly, the context had been. Various members suggested it was a remark about elections, crime, or simply insisted he’d never said it at all.

Regardless, the Biden re-election campaign quickly assailed the comment. “Milwaukee … deserves better than a convicted felon, racist, and wannabe dictator who hates us and our values,” Wisconsin Democratic Coordinated Campaign Manager Garren Randolph said in a statement.

On policy, Trump brought up a recent proposal to eliminate taxes on tips, per House Republicans in the room. But he also appeared to float replacing the personal income tax with tariffs, according to Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.

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If so, it was a retro idea: Import duties were the main source of federal revenue until the income tax was established in the early 20th century. Trump reportedly suggested during the meeting he was a “big fan” of former President William McKinley, a Republican known for his support of tariffs — though there appeared to be some uncertainty about Trump’s message.

“He talked about how we did our taxes up until World War One. It was all tariffs,” Bacon told Semafor. “So he mentioned that but...I don’t know if he was suggesting we go back to that.” He added Trump broadly talked about imposing tariffs as a tool to protect domestic industry.

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Trump met with Republican senators later in the day at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Some prominent skeptics of the former president were in attendance: Sens. Todd Young of Indiana; Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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Republican senators said Trump was cordial and didn’t take shots at his critics. Sen. John Thune, the second-ranked GOP senator waging a bid to replace McConnell, told Semafor the meeting had a “good tone and a good message.”

Thune added that Trump addressed 2024 Senate races, and argued he could help expand an already favorable landscape for Republican senators. “I think he clearly today wanted to deliver a message that was both in terms of substance and tone, a very unifying one and I think it was incredibly well received,” he said.

The relationship between Trump and McConnell has been particularly frigid. The pair haven’t spoken since Dec. 2020, and McConnell said Trump was “morally responsible” after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The pair shook hands, and McConnell called the meeting “positive” afterwards.

Other GOP senators critical of Trump also struck a deferential tone towards their party’s expected standard-bearer. “I’m here to work for my state. I’m here to work for my country,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La, who hasn’t endorsed Trump, told reporters. “So it’s not awkward to work with someone who polls show will be the next president.”

“It shows that he is absolutely the leader of the party,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told reporters. “You had people who have vociferously opposed him, who were sitting right next to him in the room.”

Kadia Goba contributed reporting

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