Two months after its last visit to the nation’s capital, the circus returned to Washington, D.C. on Thursday. But while Donald Trump was merely the main attraction back in March, this time he was indisputably the ringmaster.
Not all is well inside the Republican big top, and the much-anticipated meeting between the presumptive GOP nominee and House Speaker Paul Ryan failed to offer the clean resolution some in the party had hoped for. Though Ryan had warm words for Trump and expressed optimism that the two men could eventually reach an understanding, he made clear in the meeting’s aftermath that he would not endorse the presumptive nominee just yet.
Trump snuck into the side entrance of the Republican National Committee building a little before 9 a.m., bypassing a few dozen protesters entertaining the horde of journalists staking out the main entrance. “Aquí estamos, y no los vamos!” yelled a group of young illegal immigrants demanding an end to deportation. The anti-war group Code Pink and a group calling itself “Rabbis Against Trump” made an appearance, but they were overshadowed by a single protester sporting a papier-mâché Trump head twisted into a cartoonish grimace and waving around Scrooge McDuck–style moneybags. The man behind the mask imagined Trump delivering his own, perverted version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech. “I have a dream,” he barked, “Where a white man can walk down the streets of the United States of America being as racist and misogynistic as he wants to be!” The crowd of protesters booed lustily.
An elderly bagpipe player in a kilt unexpectedly appeared toward the end of the stake-out, piping out music and ruining the live shots of several television reporters. “I was up here for something else on Capitol Hill, and I heard all the noise and carrying on, and I came down,” said bagpiper Ben Williams. “I thought I’d offer an alternate sound besides all the protests and negativity.”
Was Williams also perhaps making a statement about Donald Trump’s mother, an immigrant from Scotland? “Oh, I didn’t know that,” he said brightly. “As a matter of fact I think I’ll pipe right now. He’s coming out pretty soon, I’ll play right now just in case he likes pipes.”
The mood inside the RNC was doubtless more subdued, at least judging from the joint statement issued by Trump and Ryan after the meeting’s conclusion. “The United States cannot afford another four years of the Obama White House, which is what Hillary Clinton represents,” the two Republican leaders wrote. “That is why it’s critical that Republicans unite around our shared principles, advance a conservative agenda, and do all we can to win this fall. With that focus, we had a great conversation this morning.”
“While we were honest about our few differences, we recognize that there are also many important areas of common ground,” the statement continued. “We will be having additional discussions, but remain confident there’s a great opportunity to unify our party and win this fall, and we are totally committed to working together to achieve that goal.”
Having made nice with Ryan, Trump was whisked off to a meeting with Senate Republican leadership while the speaker left to deliver his usual weekly press conference on the Hill. And though Ryan led with a statement on a recent opioid bill, the unusually large scrum of journalists crammed into the conference room had only one topic in mind.
#share#From the start, the Speaker seemed determined to deviate as little as possible from his joint statement with the presumptive nominee. “I think we had a very encouraging meeting,” he began. “Look, it’s no secret that Donald Trump and I have our differences. We talked about those differences today. The question is: What is it we need to do to unify the Republican party?”
Ryan stressed that while policy differences remain, he’s confident that he and Trump share a set of core principles — “principles like the Constitution, the separation of powers, the fact that we have an executive that is going way beyond the boundaries of the Constitution, and how it’s important to us that we restore Article 1 of the Constitution.”
But as reporters dug deeper, Ryan’s underlying discomfort emerged. “It’s very important that we don’t fake unifying, that we don’t pretend unification,” he said, when asked whether he will eventually endorse Trump.
Ryan stressed that while policy differences remain, he’s confident that he and Trump share a set of core principles.
The Speaker also demurred when asked whether Trump promised to change or moderate the tone of his campaign. “I think it’s important that the kind of conversation we had is between the two of us,” Ryan said. “No offense, I don’t want to litigate our conversation to the media. Because I think when you’re beginning to get to know someone, you have a good conversation of trust between each other.”
Ryan also tiptoed around what are perhaps the largest policy chasms between him and Trump — namely, Trump’s hawkish stance on immigration and his proposed Muslim ban. “I represent a wing of the conservative party, you could say,” Ryan said. “He’s bringing in a whole new wing, he’s bringing voters that we’ve never had for decades. That’s a positive thing.”
And if that new wing dregs up serious policy differences within the party? “We will have policy disputes — there’s no way around that,” Ryan admitted. “Mitt Romney and I had policy disputes in 2012.”
Though Ryan was nothing if not conciliatory in his public remarks about Trump following their meeting, it seemed clear that he had given the real-estate mogul few if any concrete concessions. At the press conference he ignored several pointed questions about whether he planned to endorse before July’s convention, and refused to characterize the discussion as anything other than an “encouraging” first step in a long-term “process” to unite the party’s disparate wings.
#related#In fact, it may have been Trump who gave up ground during the confab. Only a few days ago, Trump had refused to rule out a push to remove Ryan as chairman of the GOP’s national convention. But on Wednesday he had a change of heart, and Ryan said Trump “reiterated” his desire to see the Speaker head up the July convention during their meeting today.
Though Ryan concluded his press conference by emphasizing that the core principles he and Trump share give him confidence the party can eventually come together, he refused to elaborate on that assertion and issued several caveats that made unity sound a long way off. Both men appear sincere in their search for common ground, and it seems probable that Ryan will end up endorsing his party’s nominee eventually. But despite encouraging words on both sides of the dispute, Ryan’s lukewarm endorsement of Trump’s overarching principles and his continuing refusal to fall in line mean that the way forward remains fraught.
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.