WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump brushed off his Capitol Hill critics Wednesday, declaring he doesn't need House Speaker Paul Ryan or other leery Republican leaders, even as he prepared to sit down with them. His defiant message came amid new signs that he might be right, with GOP voters becoming more willing to embrace him.
"If we make a deal, that will be great," Trump told Fox News Channel when asked about Thursday's meeting with Ryan, who has so far refused to endorse him. "And if we don't, we will trudge forward like I've been doing and winning all the time."
Trump's allies and advisers echoed his contention that he can claim the White House with or without leading congressional Republicans, who continue to express reservations about his tone and inconsistent policy prescriptions. Their public differences are overshadowing Trump's efforts to broaden his political appeal as the next phase of the 2016 contest begins.
His likely November opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, still has Sen. Bernie Sanders opposing her for her party's nomination. But she all but ignored him Wednesday as she campaigned in Blackwood, New Jersey.
She focused instead on Trump's statement in an Associated Press interview that he doesn't plan to release his tax returns until an ongoing audit is completed. Should Trump not release his returns before the November election it would mark a break from precedent for presidential nominees.
"So you've got to ask yourself why doesn't he want to release it? Yeah, well, we're going to find out," Clinton told supporters.
Meanwhile, more Republican voters appear to be moving behind Trump, despite big-name holdouts such as Ryan, both former president Bushes and the party's 2012 nominee Mitt Romney.
Almost two in three Republican-leaning voters now view Trump favorably, compared to 31 percent who view him unfavorably, according to a national Gallup Poll taken last week. The numbers represent a near reversal from Gallup's survey in early March.
"Despite the contentious primary process, the party is healing itself and scabbing over," said Republican pollster Greg Strimple.
Ryan insisted Wednesday that Republican Party unity is paramount, even if he's not yet willing to endorse the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee.
"What we're trying to do is be as constructive as possible and have a real unification," Ryan said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "We have to be at full strength to win this election."
Trump is to meet with Republican leaders Thursday morning at the Republican National Committee headquarters. The private meetings represent his first tangible steps toward repairing his strained relationships with the nation's most powerful elected Republicans.
While Thursday's meetings may highlight party divisions, Trump's team sees them as a win-win.
They'd like to secure Ryan's support, but believe that signs of continued opposition from congressional Republicans would simply reinforce his outsider appeal. Additionally, Trump's team doesn't believe Ryan or the GOP's other congressional leaders have any significant influence on the majority of general election voters.
"Donald Trump is unifying the party already," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump's chief Washington ally. "The party is the people who vote."
New York Rep. Chris Collins, also a Trump supporter, said the billionaire businessman would be stronger with Ryan's support, "but frankly, Donald Trump is going to win regardless of who supports him and who doesn't support him."
Wednesday night, Trump's campaign released an endorsement signed by the chairs of seven House committees. "It is paramount that we coalesce around the Republican nominee, Mr. Donald J. Trump," the GOP lawmakers wrote.
While Trump's team is prepared to shrug off much of the party's establishment, that does not include the Republican National Committee.
The political novice plans to rely heavily on the committee's expansive political operation to supplement his bare-bones campaign, which has so far ignored seemingly vital functions such as voter data collection, swing-state staffing and fundraising infrastructure.
"As we turn our focus toward the general election, we want to make sure there's the strongest partnership," said Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee's chief strategist.
Absent a viable Republican alternative, there were new signs on Capitol Hill that Trump's conservative critics were beginning to fall in line.
"As a conservative, I cannot trust Donald Trump to do the right thing, but I can deeply trust Hillary Clinton to do the wrong thing every time," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., adding that he would vote for Trump if that's the choice he has.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho., said he will support Trump, although "I'm not enthusiastic about it."
"He can get us enthusiastic if he comes to talk to us," continued Labrador, who is part of the House's conservative "Freedom Caucus." ''These are the people who are going to go out to the districts that he needs to win overwhelmingly so he can win the nominations."
Trump on Thursday is to meet first with Ryan and RNC chairman Reince Priebus, then have a second meeting with Ryan, this time with his House leadership team. Trump is also expected to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Senate Republicans.
Another Trump supporter, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., predicted it was "very unlikely" that Ryan would not ultimately back the Republican nominee.
"He wants to unify the Republican Party, and it all sort of begins tomorrow," Fleming said of Ryan.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Lerer contributed to this report.