Ryan under GOP fire for Trump remarks

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE’s handling of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE is coming under criticism from Senate Republicans, many of whom prefer the way their leader, Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE, deals with the unconventional candidate.

McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, has steadfastly declined to call Trump's criticism of a federal judge “racist,” a term that Ryan (R-Wis.) pointedly deployed.

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“It sets up journalists to ask, ‘Do you agree with Paul Ryan that it was racist?” said an aide to a vulnerable GOP senator

Trump set off a firestorm last week by claiming that a Mexican-American federal judge handling a lawsuit against Trump University was biased because of his heritage.

Republican lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol swiftly expressed strong disapproval, but Ryan ratcheted up the criticism significantly by calling it “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Ryan’s remarks quickly became a Democratic talking point used to batter vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents.

“This morning, Ryan called Donald Trump’s attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel the ‘textbook definition of racism.’ Will Johnson join Ryan in calling out Trump’s racism?” American Bridge, a Democrat-allied communications group, asked in a press release targeting Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), one of the chamber’s most endangered incumbents. 

The group sent out similar releases pressing Republican Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteExplaining Democratic victories: It’s gun violence, stupid Trump voter fraud panel member fights back against critics Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada MORE (N.H.), Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntDems push for more money for opioid fight Trump asked Senate Republicans to end Russia election interference investigation: report An overlooked solution to the opioid epidemic MORE (Mo.), Mark KirkMark KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE (Ill.), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (Ariz.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him How four GOP senators guided a tax-bill victory behind the scenes MORE (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) to condemn Trump’s action as “racist.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Wednesday sent an email to reporters highlighting a Tampa Bay Times article in which three Republican Senate candidates declined to go as far as Ryan.

“Even though high-ranking Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan have condemned Donald Trump’s comments on the Trump University Judge as racist, Florida Senate candidates Carlos Beruff, Ron DeSantis and Carlos Lopez-Cantera avoided going that far,” the Senate Democrats’ political arm wrote.

One GOP senator said he and his colleagues are more upset with Trump’s lack of discipline, which has forced them to play defense instead of talking about the weak economy.

At the same time, the senator added, “nobody was happy with Paul.”

Another Republican senator was more diplomatic: “If he could have gotten his point across without being so definitive and giving Democrats fodder for people lower on the ticket, that would have been good.”

Senate Republicans won’t criticize Ryan publically because they don’t want to pick a fight with the top-ranking House Republican or be seen as defending Trump’s comment, which many thought was ill-advised.

But they have concerns about whether Ryan is thinking enough about how his actions affect the party’s chances of keeping control of the Senate.

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, said her boss did what he thought was right.

“He was asked a question and answered honestly. He’s always said he’ll speak out when warranted,” she said.

Some Senate Republicans acknowledge that Ryan’s direct condemnation of Trump may prove helpful down the road if they get the unpredictable candidate to think twice before spouting a race-based critique.

“Maybe he was trying to get his attention. Maybe he was trying to get through his thick skull,” said a Senate Republican.

Still, a third Senate Republican critical of Ryan’s remarks said the use of a “charged” and “emotional” term wasn’t the best move.

“His comments poured gasoline on the fire and put every Republican in an incredibly uncomfortable position. It was entirely avoidable,” another Senate GOP aide told The Hill on Tuesday.

McConnell has bent over backwards to avoid giving Democrats any ammo to use against vulnerable colleagues — even if it sometimes makes for awkward media appearances.

During a Sunday interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” McConnell was asked three times if Trump’s comments were racist and each time refused to use that term.

“I couldn’t disagree more with a statement like that,” he said instead.

The Senate GOP leader dodged again when reporters in the Capitol pressed him Tuesday on Ryan’s use of the word “racist.”

“I was asked over the course of the last week on numerous occasions to express myself on various utterances of our nominee. And I have done that. And unless there was some new comment today, I don't have anything to add,” McConnell said.

His answer left reporters frustrated but won kudos from his colleagues.

“Mitch’s answer was textbook,” beamed one Republican senator, discussing his appearance on “Meet the Press.”

CNN’s Erin Burnett asked McConnell in an interview if Ryan went too far in calling Trump’s comments racists.

But McConnell declined to criticize, reflecting the broader feeling in his caucus that the GOP has been too consumed by infighting this year.

“I’m not going to critique the Speaker. I can speak for myself and I have spoken for myself,” he said. “I have listed all of last week every occasion upon which I differed with Donald Trump, particularly attacking people on the basis of their ethnicity — totally inappropriate.”

Ryan made his comments Tuesday at an event devoted to highlighting GOP proposals to combat poverty. He emphasized his shared ground with Trump on various issues and argued Republicans "have more likelihood in getting our policies enacted with him that we do with” Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a Trump surrogate, did not fault Ryan for his sharp criticism of the candidate but urged the national media to move on to other issues, such as the need to reform Washington.

“As the Speaker has indicated, the concerns raised by those comments are legitimate and we share those concerns,” he said.

“I respect everyone’s opinion, how they deal with Donald Trump, how they respond to Donald Trump and what they have to offer from that perspective,” he added. “I let them speak for themselves.”