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FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks during an 'Unleashing American Energy' event at the Department of Energy in Washington, U.S., June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Following a tumultuous start to 2018, President Donald Trump will huddle with top Republicans on a two-day retreat beginning on Friday to lay out legislative priorities for the year and discuss a strategy for pivotal November congressional elections.
Two days after explosive comments by Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, put the White House on the defensive, the president will sit down at Camp David in Maryland with party leaders, including House of Representative Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican establishment figures who Bannon has criticized in the past.
Trump achieved the first major legislative victory of his presidency in December with a tax overhaul long sought by his party and its supporters.
The president is eager for more victories, and the White House has targeted infrastructure policy and an overhaul of welfare programs as top priorities. Immigration legislation, in particular a plan to protect hundreds of thousands of young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children, is also on the agenda.
While Trump and McConnell want to work on infrastructure first, Ryan is more interested in tackling so-called entitlement programs such as welfare.
A White House official said the timing of legislation would be discussed as well as the political priority of giving Republicans substantive issues to highlight ahead of the November midterm elections in which the party will battle to keep control of Congress.
All 435 members of the House and a third of the 100 members of the Senate will be up for re-election. A Democratic takeover of one or both chambers could stifle Trump's agenda.
The meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat follows an uproar over a new book's account of an inept Trump White House. In the book, Bannon was quoted as calling a meeting involving the president's son and son-in-law with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 presidential campaign "treasonous."
Trump broke with Bannon on Wednesday after the comments attributed to his former advisor in author Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House" were made public. Trump said Bannon had "lost his mind."
The Camp David strategy session will provide an opportunity to switch topics after the furore over the book, which went on sale on Friday.
"The White House doesn't mind the optics after a few days of the president unloading on Bannon and making our views clear on the book. The president sits down and charts the course forward ... with the actual leaders of the Republican Party," a White House official said.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Thursday that Wolff's book was a "complete fantasy" filled with tabloid gossip. She also called for the conservative online outlet Breitbart News to consider parting ways with Bannon, who leads the group and had pledged to campaign for anti-establishment Republican candidates in the 2018 elections.
The White House said healthcare, the fiscal 2019 budget, the opioid crisis and the effort to win Senate confirmation of Trump's nominees for various government posts would be discussed at the Camp David meeting, which will also be attended by Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
Cabinet members including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt will also attend, along with a handful of senior White House advisers.
Cornyn said the weekend meeting would help lawmakers and administration officials get on the same page about their priorities.
"This administration came into office perhaps not really knowing for sure that they would win the election, and was a little bit behind the curve in terms of preparing. Now I think they've recognised that that sort of coordination is really important in order to get things done," Cornyn told reporters on Thursday.
"So I look forward to having those conversations and making sure that the president's priorities and our priorities are aligned."
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)