Ryan walks tightrope with volatile Trump

Ryan walks tightrope with volatile Trump
© Greg Nash

Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP rep: Virginia defeat 'a referendum' on Trump administration After Texas shooting, lawmakers question whether military has systemic reporting problem Pence: Praying 'takes nothing away' from trying to figure out causes behind mass shooting MORE is trying to have it both ways with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE.

After weeks of wavering, the Speaker endorsed Trump for president, an important, symbolic step toward unifying the fractious Republican Party around its 2016 standard-bearer. 

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But at the same time, Ryan rarely hesitates to rebuke Trump whenever he feels the bombastic billionaire crosses the line.

The Wisconsin Republican’s reluctant, awkward embrace of Trump was on full display last week. In a Thursday column in which he formally backed the presumptive nominee, the Speaker called Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court picks “very encouraging.” Less than 24 hours later, Ryan ripped into Trump for declaring that a U.S.-born federal judge could not be impartial in a lawsuit against Trump University because “he’s a Mexican.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell expects Paul to return to Senate next week Former Hill staff calls for mandatory harassment training Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Ky.) is treading a similar path as he seeks to protect his fragile majority. But Trump is proving to be much thornier problem for the 46-year-old Speaker, who by virtue of his position will preside over next month’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Trump is set to be officially elected as the nominee. 

Mitt Romney, who picked Ryan for his running mate in 2012, is leading the charge against Trump, belittling the real estate tycoon as a “con man,” a “fake” and a “phony.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) on Monday called Trump a racist for insisting that someone’s ethnicity could preclude them from being a fair jurist. And former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), floated as a possible vice presidential nominee for Trump, called the candidate’s remarks about the judge “inexcusable.”

As the nation’s highest-ranking elected Republican, Ryan’s ambivalence about Trump reflects broader, competing imperatives: He wants to keep Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Stephen Miller, helped edit Trump speech: report Bannon jokes Clinton got her ‘ass kicked’ in 2016 election MORE out of the White House but also ensure the Grand Old Party doesn’t lose its identity and future viability in the process.

“Paul is in a very tough spot. ... On the one hand, though it took some time, Paul’s reconciled himself to the inevitable reality that Trump is the Republican nominee. On the other hand, Paul — a Jack Kemp Republican who has spent his entire life trying to make the GOP more inclusive — feels a need to denounce the stupid venom Trump spews. It’s a tricky tightrope to maneuver,” said GOP strategist Ana Navarro, a Nicaraguan immigrant who backed Jeb Bush for president and who eviscerated Trump over the weekend for attacking U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel.

If Ryan and other leaders don’t let voters know that Trump doesn’t speak for all Republicans, Navarro warned, “they will be stuck wearing Trump’s divisive rhetoric like a very heavy, rotting, albatross carcass around their necks.”

The GOP’s 30-seat advantage in the House means Ryan will probably still be Speaker when the dust settles this November. So on Tuesday, he’ll begin mapping out a separate 2016 House GOP agenda — a positive, inclusive, conservative plan he hopes can move his party forward no matter who’s occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. next year.

Ryan’s blueprint, dubbed “A Better Way,” will allow vulnerable House Republicans to diverge sharply from their nominee if he continues down a politically perilous path.

But for Ryan, it’s also about the long game: how the GOP would govern during a Trump administration or deal with another Democrat in the White House. His actions are also set against the backdrop of his own possible presidential bid in 2020, though he’s denied any interest in making such a run.

“The House GOP agenda will be a unifying agenda and will have widespread support among Republicans and our nominee,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said.

More personally, Ryan’s vowed to speak out whenever he sees Trump distorting the GOP’s core conservative values and principles. 

He did so in December, just weeks after taking over the Speaker’s gavel, calling Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country “unconstitutional.” On the day of the Super Tuesday primaries in March, Ryan knocked Trump for failing to forcefully disavow support from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

That same month, Ryan called on the GOP front-runner to take responsibility for violent outbursts at his rallies.

“He needs to preserve the integrity of the brand and the dignity of his principles,” said Al Cardenas, a prominent GOP power broker who served as chairman of the American Conservative Union. “I presume that [Ryan] will tiptoe through the RNC convention as its chairman, continue to support Mr. Trump as our nominee, and criticize when the need arises. 

“And that’s as good as it’s going to get.”

But Ryan has been able to pick and choose which Trump controversies to weigh in on. Just last month, he sidestepped questions about a New York Times report that took a critical look at how the reality TV star has treated women in private.

“I’m not gonna get into the day-to-day, up-and-down of this campaign,” the Speaker said at a news conference.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), the Ethics Committee chairman who is close to Ryan, said he wasn’t sure if other incendiary remarks from Trump could cause Ryan and other GOP leaders to rescind their endorsements. But Dent believes Trump’s tone and rhetoric is harmful to the party.

“There are people who say he’s Teflon and he makes statements that don’t have any impact. But I think he does have an impact. We’re seeing that in his exceedingly high unfavorability ratings,” Dent told The Hill in a phone interview Monday.

“Paul Ryan is the titular head of the party and Speaker of the House. His first priority is protecting the House majority,” Dent added. “We should be all right, but you never know.”

Another Republican lawmaker close to leadership predicted the Curiel controversy wouldn’t be the last time Ryan lambastes Trump in public.

“Trump is a difficult partner to manage. I suspect we’ll be going through this dance back and forth between now and Election Day,” said the GOP lawmaker, who endorsed Trump after he captured the nomination late last month. “Trump is volatile and continues to say things that are indefensible, so you have to speak out.

“But to support a third-party candidate is to hand the presidency to Hillary Clinton.”