WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans avoided asking President Trump about a range of vexing issues during a closed-door meeting Tuesday - setting aside hot-button concerns to instead cheer the president's foreign policy successes and the strong economy.
GOP lawmakers did not prod Trump to deal with the ongoing controversy over a disparaging remark made by a White House aide about Sen. John McCain - even though many lawmakers said before and after the meeting that the White House should apologize to McCain, a request that's been repeatedly rebuffed.
At issue is a comment made last week by Kelly Sadler, a communications aide in the Trump administration, who reportedly said during a meeting that McCain's opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel "doesn't matter" because "he's dying anyway.' The remark - coming as McCain remains at home in Arizona battling an aggressive form of brain cancer - has incensed many GOP lawmakers.
"The person who said that should apologize and apologize publicly,' Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said after he and other Republicans emerged from the hour-long session with Trump.
But, McConnell said, "the issue didn't come up' in their meeting with Trump.
Lawmakers also avoided airing their specific concerns about the president's promise to help a Chinese telecom manufacturer, his threats to impose steep tariffs on European allies, or the stalled trade negotiations with Canada and Mexico over a new NAFTA deal.
Several lawmakers said they were particularly concerned about Trump's promise to help ZTE, the Chinese telecom company. The U.S. Commerce Department has accused ZTE of violating a March 2017 settlement, in which the firm agreed to pay $1.19 billion for illegally shipping telecommunications equipment to Iran and North Korea.
But Trump suggested over the weekend that he wanted to go easy on ZTE, tweeting on Sunday that he was working with Chinese President Xi Jinping "to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast.' In the tweet, Trump said he had instructed the Commerce Department to help ZTE because "too many jobs' were being lost in China.
"He didn't talk about ZTE,' said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I'm concerned about that.'
Graham and others said Trump did talk more broadly about trade with China, as well as other foreign policy matters - including his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and his possible meeting next month with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
"The president was in a very good mood and really quite funny,' McConnell said. Trump "reviewed a lot the new developments abroad,' the Senate GOP leader added.
Graham echoed that, saying Trump gave "a very good overview of how North Korea is moving in the right direction' and highlighted his efforts to push Iran for a stronger nuclear accord. North Korea is now threatening to cancel the upcoming nuclear summit because of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
"I was very impressed with his commitment to … contain Iran and get a better deal if he can,' Graham said. "He talked a lot about that.'
Lawmakers said Trump also discussed the upcoming midterm elections, expressing confidence about the GOP's prospects.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said there weren't many questions from lawmakers but one of his colleagues said the party has accomplished "a lot of really good things" during Trump's tenure and asked the president "would he help us get that message out to the faithful?' Rounds declined to name the senator who made that request.
Asked why senators did not broach more contentious issues - particularly Sadler's comment about McCain - Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., suggested that would have been inappropriate.
Sadler's comment was "unconscionable and I think everybody involved should apologize, but this was a policy meeting, OK?' Kennedy said. "We talked about where we've been in terms of the economy and taxes and deregulation and Obamacare and veterans' rights. Then we talked about where we're going.'
Contributing: David Jackson