Who speaks for the GOP on national security?
© Greg Nash

The horrific attacks in Orlando should bring us together as a nation. We should rally around the values and ideals that make our country so special as we stand together in rejecting evil.

But as forty-nine people lay dead and more than fifty are wounded, it is impossible to ignore that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE’s first instinct was to use the tragedy to congratulate himself and raise conspiracy theories about our president holding sympathy for the attacker. Trump's reaction was not just unpresidential--it was despicable even by tabloid standards. 


In response, President Obama, clearly troubled by Trump’s tone in the wake of a national tragedy, posed a question: “Do Republican officials actually agree with this?” It’s a fair point. Most Republican elected officials--with a few notable exceptions--have officially endorsed Trump, even though he forces them to distance themselves from his daily diatribe.  

Faced with a rogue Republican presidential nominee, it is no surprise House Speaker and Trump endorser Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-WI) is now trying his hand at trickle-up politics. 

Clearly uncomfortable with his party’s petulant leader, Speaker Ryan released a Republican National Security Agenda even before Orlando tragedy, with two goals. The first is to surreptitiously fill Trump’s head with something more substantive than racist insults. “I think this is a document that we hope the nominee will read, and take attention to,” said one Ryan lieutenant, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-TX). But if that doesn’t work, Ryan’s second goal is to hedge Republicans’ bet on Trump.

Ryan is trying to have it both ways: He’d like to publicly support his party’s presumptive nominee without owning all of Trump’s fringe positions. In this state of cognitive dissonance, Ryan has put forward a national security agenda that raises more questions than it answers.

First, who speaks for the Republican Party on national security?

RNC Chair Reince Preibus preaches party unity, but Ryan’s national security agenda shows there is significant daylight between his party’s presumptive presidential nominee and House Republicans on major issues including trade, NATO, and nuclear proliferation. Ryan’s agenda is pro-trade but Trump is reflexively protectionist. Trump views our NATO allies as tenants behind on rent for the security America provides, while Ryan talks of “modernizing and solidifying” the alliance. Ryan’s plan says American leadership should counter the North Korean nuclear threat, while Trump suggests Japan and South Korea should consider their own nuclear deterrents.

Second, why haven’t House Republicans clearly rejected Trump’s most bigoted proposals? Ryan called out Trump’s personal assault on Judge Curiel, but he is more coy about the prospect of governing with Trump.

Most notably, Donald Trump’s single most consistent campaign promise has been to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. Ryan’s agenda says we need “more than just fencing,” but mention of a wall is conspicuously absent. It’s more than a symbolic discrepancy: Should Trump fail to deliver on his promise to have Mexico pay for the wall, Ryan’s House of Representatives would need to provide the funds. Ryan’s agenda does not dismiss that possibility.

Ryan’s agenda also says nothing about Donald Trump’s pledge of banning all Muslims from entering the United States, which he has since repeated post-Orlando. Ryan has admirably said Trump’s ban is not in the country’s interest. However, in discussing the agenda, Ryan deputy McCaul has said the country simply needs “a proper vetting system.” That is a clever way to avoid having to answer whether Republicans support Muslim immigrants receiving extra scrutiny.

Finally, what is the House Republicans’ national security ideology? Is it the neoconservatism of George W. Bush, the realism of Richard Nixon, or the America first isolationism that Trump seems to preach? In what situations would Speaker Ryan push a Trump White House to intervene militarily abroad? Despite being billed as “putting on paper what we stand for as Republicans,” Ryan’s agenda is mostly a grab bag of tired anti-Obamaisms and existing Administration policies on steroids. It’s not hard to understand why: with a notoriously incorrigible caucus, it is difficult to coalesce around a set of principles.

If Ryan truly intended for his agenda to be a lifeboat for House Republican to escape the toxic storm of Disaster Donald, he has missed the opportunity to draw clear lines in the sand to separate his caucus from the fringe positions espoused by Trump.

The stakes in an election are always high, of course. But particularly following Orlando, this year’s debate is no longer a fight over just policy and politics. It has become a battle about who we are as a country. Paul Ryan can no longer sit on the fence; he must choose whether to fully embrace or reject Donald Trump. American voters deserve to know where the highest ranking elected Republican in the country actually stands. 

Jim Arkedis is president of the Democracy, Diplomacy, Development and Defense (4D) PAC (@4DPAC), a political action committee that supports strong-on-security Democrats. Views expressed are his own.