House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday the Republican Party needs to be unified to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election.
"To pretend we are unified as a party after a very bruising primary, which just ended like a week ago, to pretend we are unified without actually unifying we go into the fall at half strength," Ryan told reporters ahead of his Thursday meeting with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. "This election is too important to go into the fall at half strength."
Ryan stunned the GOP last week when he said he wasn't ready to endorse the billionaire businessman. On Wednesday, the Wisconsin congressman said he didn't know Trump "really well," explaining he has only met the Republican front-runner twice, "once in 2012 [and] we had a very good conversation in March on the phone."
"We just need to get to know each other, and we, as a leadership team, are enjoying the fact that we get to meet with him," Ryan said. "I'd rather have a conversation with him in person than through the media, no offense."
Asked about controversial policies Trump has put forth on the campaign trail, Ryan called the GOP a "big tent party" and said there is plenty of room for different policy disputes.
"We come from different wings of the party and the goal here is to unify the different wings of the party around common principles so we can go forward unified," he added.
Trump is taking a run at party peacemaking now that voters have put him on a glide path to the Republican nomination. If he can't get restive Republicans like Speaker Ryan on side, he says he'll keep on winning anyway.
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Trump now has 92 percent of the delegates he needs to clinch the nomination, according to AP's count, after he earned a hefty haul Tuesday night in West Virginia and Nebraska primaries. He has the field to himself, but after having nearly closed the deal with primary voters, he's facing a Republican establishment that is deeply wary of his candidacy but has nowhere else to go.
Asked on Fox News what will happen if Thursday's meeting with Ryan does not go well, Trump said: "We'll trudge forward and do like I've been doing, and win all the time."
Despite his unconcerned tone, much rides on the relationship he forges with party's leaders. Trump's bare-bones campaign has glaring deficiencies the party apparatus is uniquely positioned to address. The New York businessman has largely ignored collecting information on voters he needs to turn out in November, sent few staff to battleground states and taken no steps to build a fundraising network.
"As we turn our focus toward the general election, we want to make sure there's the strongest partnership," Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee's chief strategist, said of Trump.
Trump told The Associated Press on Tuesday he would not rely on public financing, a decision that forces him to quickly assemble a donor network capable of raising the estimated $1 billion needed to run a modern presidential campaign. For that, he is likely to have to rely on help from the party's extensive donor network.
"There are many ways that they could work together," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump's top ally on Capitol Hill. "It would be important that they have a good partnership in this election, maybe more than others."
Trump officials were briefed earlier in the week on the RNC's general election operation, which includes a multimillion-dollar voter data operation backed by more than 200 paid staff in key states. Discussions between the Trump campaign and party leaders will continue Thursday when the presumptive nominee visits Capitol Hill for private meetings.
He's scheduled to meet first with Ryan and the RNC chairman, Reince Priebus, then have a second meeting with Ryan, this time with his House leadership team. Trump is also expected to meet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
These are seen as critical steps to address tensions holding back party unity.
Republican leaders in the Senate and at the RNC are urging members to get behind the billionaire and turn their energy toward battling Democrat Hillary Clinton this fall.
"We have a nominee, it looks like he may well be very competitive, and we want to win the White House," McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday. He added, "We know that Hillary Clinton will be four more years of Barack Obama. I think that's going to, in the end, be enough to unify Republicans."
But Ryan said Trump has more work to do to achieve unity.
That was apparent Wednesday when one of Trump's vanquished rivals, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, suggested he's unlikely to campaign for the nominee because he still has deep reservations about Trump's ideas and conduct.
Even so, Rubio said Hillary Clinton is a worse choice for president and he's "even more scared about her being in control of the U.S. government."
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders defeated Clinton in West Virginia, his 19th state victory to her 23. But that did little to advance his prospects. Clinton is 94 percent of the way to the nomination, on track to capture it in early June.