Trump aide downplays GOP policy rifts

Story highlights

  • Trump adviser Paul Manafort said policy divides with House Speaker Paul Ryan are minor
  • Manafort met with House Republicans who support Trump on Thursday

Washington (CNN)A top Donald Trump aide is moving aggressively to mend fences with Republican Party leaders on Capitol Hill.

Paul Manafort held a furious round of meetings that started at the Capitol Hill Club with the nine-member leadership board of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus and a group of House Republicans who support Trump. He also held an off-the-record lunch with Senate chiefs of staff and had a private meeting with Utah Sen. Mike Lee -- a former Ted Cruz supporter who is not yet sold on Trump.
It all happened the same day Trump elevated Manafort to the role of campaign chairman -- beefing up his bona fides to speak for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
    Manafort assured House conservatives that Trump "did not plan on changing any of the planks of the platform," Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who helped facilitate the Freedom Caucus meeting, said afterward.
    Mid-morning, Manafort downplayed Trump's policy differences with House Speaker Paul Ryan in his only comments to reporters, chalking up their rifts on issues such as trade and taxes to "semantics."
    He said the Trump and Ryan policy teams are working to bridge their differences.
    "Their differences are actually not that great, and some of it's just semantics," Manafort told reporters. "They both agree that the Obama trade policy and the Clinton trade policy is wrong for America and costing us jobs. The question is how to remedy that. They're working on those issues together."
    Trump's populist positions -- particularly his opposition to U.S. trade deals and entitlement reform and his openness to hikes in the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy -- have put him at odds with Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who has built his career on advocating conservative policies.
    Trade is a particularly glaring difference. Republicans have traditionally supported free trade, and granted President Barack Obama a key trade negotiating authority just last year. But Trump has made bashing deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership a centerpiece of his campaign.
    Their rift burst into the open when Ryan declared that he isn't yet ready to endorse Trump. He also cited Trump's tone and has criticized his proposal for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
    The two met a week ago in Washington and touted progress toward unifying the party.
    Manafort told the House Freedom Caucus that the 11-name list of prospective Supreme Court justices that Trump announced Wednesday -- to a warm reception from conservatives -- would not change when the time came to actually nominate new justices for the high court.
    Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said Manafort assured the caucus that the list won't change.
    "The question we had for the campaign today is: How do we know that that's the list? That it's not going to change?" he said. "I don't know the man. He changes his positions sometimes."
    But, Labrador added, "I was pretty assured by our conversation today" that the list won't change.
    Most of the House conservatives in the group backed Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky or Cruz in the 2016 GOP presidential race, but many have now said they plan to back the party's nominee now that the contentious contest has wrapped up.
    DesJarlais, one of Trump's early Hill supporters and a member of the Freedom Caucus, organized the meeting with half a dozen members -- Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; Labrador; Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico; Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-South Carolina; Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina; and Rep. Scott Garrett, R-New Jersey.
    DesJarlais told CNN that the "mission statement of the Freedom Caucus ties very well with Trump's message" and he believed the group would help unite the party.
    The group did give some suggestions to Manafort for who Trump should pick as his vice president, but DesJarlais declined to reveal the names. He said Manafort didn't give the group any more details on the selection process that weren't already reported in the media.
    Members of the group urged Trump to enlist the expertise of conservatives in Congress on foreign policy.
    The Tennessee Republican told CNN there's an effort to schedule a sit-down with Trump "sooner rather than later."
    Meanwhile, Manafort said the group of House Republicans who support Trump is growing.
    "I'm very pleased with the growing support for Mr. Trump's candidacy," he said. "We answered all the questions the members had. There are less questions and more support. So we're pleased."
    He called the meetings "a stepping stone" in the process of Trump's work to "unify the party, grow the campaign."
    One attendee, Rep. Chris Collins of New York, said Trump's willingness to listen on policy has surprised some House Republicans.
    "The room is expanding," he said of Trump's supporters attending the weekly gatherings. "At this point, it's all about continued unity."
    "Policy is the next step," Collins said, noting that Ryan and Trump's policy staffs "are now talking on a regular basis."
    He said a series of upcoming Trump policy speeches -- one to the National Rifle Association on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky, another on energy in North Dakota, and more on issues such as health care -- will mollify conservatives who are still balking at endorsing their party's presumptive nominee.
    As he left the meeting, Manafort seemed particularly pleased that talk of a contested convention has shifted from Republicans to Democrats, with Bernie Sanders' supporters refusing to back away from their intention to challenge Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
    Smiling, Manafort said, "Turnabout's fair play."