House

Speaker Ryan tries new Trump strategy: Ignore him

With Donald Trump waging an ugly, scorched-Earth campaign, Speaker Paul Ryan is facing pressure to embrace a new strategy: ignore Trump.

Both Ryan allies and even some Trump surrogates are urging the Wisconsin Republican to avoid the incendiary GOP presidential nominee and steer clear of the kind of unhelpful, intraparty warfare Republicans saw break out between the two men last week.

Instead, they want Ryan to help prosecute the case against Hillary Clinton and make the argument that putting another Democrat in the White House would swing the Supreme Court to the left and mean four more years of "feckless" foreign and economic policies.

"I've certainly made it known to all Republican leadership that we need to distinguish carefully between the ugly words of Donald Trump and the ugly policies of Hillary Clinton," Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a Trump supporter, told The Hill in a phone interview.

"My preference would be that they just ignore each other at this point," added a second House Republican who is backing Trump. "It seems most of those bridges have been burned."

So far, Ryan appears to be heeding the advice. He's refusing to utter Trump's name in fundraising emails or campaign and policy speeches. Ryan didn't once mention Trump during an address to business leaders in Wisconsin on Thursday. His speech to college Republicans on Friday also was devoid of the word "Trump."

And during the question-and-answer segment, Ryan made only a passing reference to the GOP nominee, who had recently lashed out at the Speaker in speeches and on Twitter.

"Don't get into a personality contest," Ryan told students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in response to a question about how college Republicans could win over skeptical students. "Don't get into the latest Twitter storm from somebody."

Aides say Ryan is focusing on the things he can control, trying to inject cash and enthusiasm into congressional races by stumping with candidates and talking up the House GOP's election-year agenda.

In fact, Ryan's tried in vain to turn the media's attention to the "Better Way" plan, whipping out a pamphlet tucked into his front suit pocket at almost every opportunity.

He also issued a statement condemning Clinton's campaign for remarks made by an adviser about Catholics. The move aligned Ryan with Trump's campaign, albeit without mentioning the nominee by name.

The Trump campaign appears to be imploding one week after a 2005 audio recording was leaked of Trump bragging about trying to have sex with a married woman and groping women's genitals. In the days since, at least a half-dozen women have come forward with personal stories of how Trump had sexually assaulted them at his Florida home, in nightclubs and on an airplane.

On a conference call with House Republicans this week, Ryan said he would no longer defend or campaign with Trump - a move that ignited an immediate backlash from Trump loyalists on the call and from Trump himself.

Ryan is disloyal and a "weak and ineffective" leader, Trump said in a series of unflattering tweets blasting establishment Republicans.

That GOP infighting, during the final stretch of the election, has been incredibly unhelpful to the party's efforts to maintain control of the Senate and House, Ryan allies acknowledged. The concern: Trump's attacks could depress Republican turnout in down-ballot races.

Amid the raging civil war, Ryan's team has been reaching out to surrogates appraising them of the Speaker's fall game plan. For the final 24 days of the election, Ryan will stump with vulnerable Republicans around the country, raise cash for those candidates and try to stay off Trump's radar. And wherever he goes, Ryan will argue that a GOP-controlled House could be the last remaining "check" on a liberal Clinton White House.

No matter how bad the stories get for the GOP nominee, Ryan allies don't expect the Speaker to formally revoke his Trump endorsement. That might set off yet another Trump Twitter tirade.

"I don't see Paul rescinding his endorsement," said fellow Wisconsin GOP Rep. Reid Ribble, a close Ryan ally who's leaning toward supporting independent candidate Evan McMullin instead of Trump.

"I think if you haven't done it by now, I don't anticipate anybody doing it in the future," added Ribble, who's exchanged text messages with Ryan in recent days.

That goes for other GOP leaders on Capitol Hill as well. Despite the sexual allegations against Trump, GOP leaders will try to "ride out" the rest of the campaign without picking a fight with their controversial nominee.

"You essentially have a crazy person at the top of the ticket, someone who just has no focus on how to win elections but has demonstrated he doesn't care if Republicans control the House or the Senate," said Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist and former official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"He is willing to pull the pin and take everyone down with him. Let's not give him any more oxygen to burn the Republican ship down."

Ribble, who's retiring from Congress this year, anticipated that Trump would try to blame Ryan - and others in the GOP establishment - if he loses the White House.

With another tweet or speech, Trump could easily rile up opposition on the far right to target Ryan's reelection as Speaker in January.

"Let's face it. Donald Trump has proven himself to be willing to blame anybody but himself for all of his woes. Whenever something goes wrong, it is always somebody else's fault," Ribble told The Hill.

But Ribble thinks Ryan will be vindicated if Republicans manage to keep the House majority in the face of a Trump collapse.

"When we get to a point of clarity on this election, members are going to see it for exactly what it was," Ribble said. "Without regard to what happens to the executive branch, I think Ryan's strongest hand is to show this strategy of his actually works."

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