Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE’s unconventional candidacy has posed a challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money — Democrats rush to finish off infrastructure Biden employs flurry of meetings to unite warring factions GOP senators say Biden COVID-19 strategy has 'exacerbated vaccine hesitancy' MORE (Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (Wis.), and the two Republican leaders have handled it in strikingly different ways.
McConnell endorsed Trump’s presidential bid immediately after he clinched the nomination in May, but he has kept his distance since then, knowing that the unpredictable candidate could make or break the party’s Senate majority in November.
Ryan pointedly withheld his support from Trump at first, endorsing him only after three weeks of awkward courtship.
But lately, Ryan, the chairman of the Republican National Convention, has endeavored to embrace the presumptive nominee despite their disagreements on issues such as immigration and trade, as well as basic political strategy.
Republican senators say McConnell is creating space for himself and his members in case Trump’s campaign falls apart.
“He’s maintaining his options,” said another Republican senator, who requested anonymity to discuss his leader’s relationship with the nominee.
GOP lawmakers agree that McConnell and Ryan seem to be moving in two different directions with regard to Trump, but most of them want to steer clear of the touchy subject.
“That may be a fair characterization but I wouldn’t want to explain it,” said Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.), a vocal Trump critic.
Ryan has emphasized to colleagues the importance of unifying the party around common principles that can be applied to the array of policy challenges facing Washington next year.
He was effusive after meeting with Trump along with the rest of the House GOP conference earlier this month.
“We clearly have a nominee who wants to work with us,” he told reporters after the meeting.
Even though Ryan has distanced himself from some of Trump’s controversial comments — most recently, the real estate mogul’s praise of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — he has insisted to colleagues that he’s comfortable with the candidate.
He defended his support of Trump in a recent interview with CNN.
“It is a binary choice,” Ryan argued. “It is either Donald Trump or Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE. You don’t get a third option.”
McConnell, by contrast, has studiously kept his distance from Trump since endorsing him.
The Senate leader often avoids mentioning Trump by name, instead referring to the “presumptive nominee” or using a third-person pronoun, and has offered some unusually blunt criticism of the candidate.
McConnell last month said Trump needed to pick a running mate with in-depth knowledge of the issues, because “it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues.”
That would have been an unthinkable statement from the Senate GOP leader about Mitt Romney, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden Biden steps onto global stage with high-stakes UN speech MORE — the past two Republican nominees — or even George W. Bush, a politician never known for his policy acumen when he ran for president in 2000.
Late last month, McConnell said Trump still needed to “pivot and become what I would call a more serious and credible candidate for the highest office in the land.”
Trump let McConnell know at a recent meeting at the National Republican Senatorial Committee that he’s noticed the chilly treatment.
A Republican senator who attended the meeting said Trump made a few “subtle digs” and told the Senate leader he’s “not feeling the love.”
McConnell told colleagues at a meeting earlier this year that they should not hesitate to distance themselves from Trump if that’s the best strategy to win reelection.
He tried to reassure worried colleagues facing tough races by noting that party leaders poured money into protecting Senate seats in 1996 when it became clear that then-nominee Bob Dole would not beat President Clinton. Senate Republicans picked up two seats that year even though Clinton beat Dole by 220 electoral votes.
Some Republican senators say the different approaches of McConnell and Ryan to Trump reflect their differences in age, temperament and leadership styles.`
McConnell is known as one of the savviest tacticians on Capitol Hill. And while he shared the same qualms as Ryan over Trump’s candidacy, he saw it as advantageous to endorse him right away.
“I thought Mitch handled it more intelligently than Paul initially by saying right away, ‘He’s the nominee and I’m for him,’ ” said a Republican senator. “By waiting, you have to be able to point to some improvement in the candidate to justify your later endorsement, and every time Trump does something wrong, [Ryan] opens himself to the question of whether he’s still for him.”
Indeed, when Ryan finally gave his endorsement in mid-June, it was hard to point to any real change in Trump’s policy views, demeanor or campaigning style.
Ryan’s allies say he held back in an effort to shape Trump into a candidate that could unify the party as well as win over independents.
An aide to Ryan pointed to a recent Washington Post article that framed the Speaker as the “antidote” to Trump. In contrast to the billionaire’s fiery rhetoric, which often attacks his rivals and critics on a personal level, Ryan maintains an earnest focus on policy.
The Speaker rolled out a 35-page report detailing his anti-poverty plan in June, when the political world was fixated on Trump accusing the judge in a case against Trump University of bias because of his Mexican heritage.
Ryan has been under more pressure to embrace Trump because of his role as convention chairman in Cleveland, a duty he offered to relinquish at Trump’s request.
He has also left some suspense over just how warmly he’ll embrace Trump at the event, where both he and McConnell are scheduled to speak.
Ryan declined to say Thursday when asked by a reporter whether he would affirm support for Trump in his convention speech.