Politics & Policy

Paul Ryan’s Purgatory

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Should he support a man who might sabotage his agenda and his brand of uplifting conservatism?

For Paul Ryan, everything was going according to plan.

It was a sunny Tuesday morning, and the speaker of the House, joined by seven congressional Republicans, had just wrapped up a meeting with community leaders at a rehab center in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. They lined up behind a podium on the lawn, and for nearly half an hour, eight white Republican lawmakers — flanked by seven black civic activists — talked of their determination to address the endemic problem of poverty. They peppered their remarks with buzzwords such as “mobility,” “empowerment,” “opportunity,” and “accountability.”

Ryan then offered to take questions. Hands shot up; the first inquiry came: Did Ryan have any regrets about endorsing Donald Trump, who has continued to question the impartiality of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, based on his Mexican heritage? Ryan turned, mid question, to Bishop Shirley Holloway, his host at the community center, and smiled. “I told you.”

The speaker was there to promote the House GOP’s solutions to poverty, but he knew he’d be asked about Trump. So he tackled the question unambiguously: “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race,” Ryan replied, “is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.” He continued: “I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable. But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No. I do not.”

If Ryan assumed that such a forceful response would satisfy reporters looking for a quick headline, he was mistaken. The next question came: Did Ryan worry that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric would “undercut” the House GOP’s agenda? Yes, Ryan acknowledged; this very exchange was proof that Trump was overshadowing the House’s policy efforts. The third question was also Trump-related; so were the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. When at last one reporter chimed in to ask about the minimum wage, the speaker let out a laugh. “Thank you so much.”

Welcome to Paul Ryan’s purgatory.

The man who spent the better part of two decades climbing the congressional ranks — while promoting a particular set of principles and embodying a sort of decorum and decency he hoped would come to characterize his party — has risen to the position of speaker only to watch the Republican nominee for president overshadow his policy agenda and sabotage his brand of optimistic, uplifting conservatism.

Nothing has been simple for Ryan these last four years. He accepted Mitt Romney’s offer to run as his vice-presidential nominee only to lose a race they both believed until Election Day they would win. He returned to Congress and co-authored a bipartisan budget deal that lost him friends in the conservative movement. He won his dream chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee but within a year was pressured into accepting the most thankless job in Washington. And he spent the first eight months of his speakership shepherding a policy agenda that is already being eclipsed by the rhetoric of a GOP nominee whom Ryan loathes yet feels obligated to support because of the office he holds.

RELATED: Paul Ryan Gives Up His Admirable Stand Against Trump and Fails Conservatives

It’s hardly what the 46-year-old Wisconsinite envisioned when he reluctantly took the speaker’s gavel last October. More immediately, it’s precisely what he hoped to avoid when he announced “A Better Way,” the House GOP’s six-part policy initiative that began with Tuesday’s summit and policy paper on poverty. “Let’s face it: People know what Republicans are against,” Ryan said in a video announcing the agenda. “Now we’re going to give you a plan to show you what we’re for.”

The problem for Ryan is that most Americans know what the Republican nominee is for: building a wall along the southern border, deporting more than 10 million illegal immigrants, temporarily freezing the flow of Muslims entering the United States, slapping tariffs on countries such as China, and bringing back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” for terrorists captured on the battlefield, among other things.

And Ryan just endorsed the man behind those policies.

Keenly aware of this dilemma, Ryan manipulated the news cycle as best he could, launching the House GOP’s policy initiative less than 24 hours after his own lukewarm endorsement of Trump. He is marketing the effort as “A Better Way,” a double entendre that contrasts Ryan’s brand of conservatism not only with liberalism but also with Trumpism. (This is from the same playbook as “Confident America,” the slogan adopted by the speaker’s office last year, which jabs subtly at “Make America Great Again.”)

Ryan spent much of the primary season convinced that Trump could not win the nomination. As the front-runner’s delegate lead became insurmountable, he adjusted his expectations only slightly, preparing for a contested convention and studying with his team what his duties would be as its chairman.

Ryan faced a lose-lose proposition: He could either turn his back on his party’s nominee or pledge his allegiance to a man who represents everything he does not.

The speaker was thoroughly unprepared, then, when Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out after Indiana’s primary on May 3, effectively ceding the nomination to Trump. So surprised was Ryan that he had brief and theoretical conversations with intellectual allies about the merits of supporting a third-party conservative candidacy. That wasn’t feasible, Ryan knew. Instead, he faced a lose-lose proposition: He could either turn his back on his party’s nominee or pledge his allegiance to a man who represents everything he does not.

“Paul was stuck,” Sean Duffy, the Wisconsin congressman and Ryan’s close friend, said the day after Ryan’s endorsement and hours after the unveiling of the House GOP agenda. Is Ryan jeopardizing his image and message by backing Trump,? “There’s absolutely that risk,” Duffy says. “And many of my colleagues think about that, as do I. There’s a real risk for Paul. There’s a real risk for all of us.”

That word, “risk,” echoed throughout numerous conversations with Ryan’s advisers, colleagues, and confidants both before and after his endorsement. They spoke universally of a man deeply disquieted by Trump’s ascent yet aware of his commission as the nation’s highest-ranking Republican. Rather than rail against his predicament, they say, Ryan was resolved to bring some good of it — by briefing Trump on the policy agenda his members were already crafting, offering it as a rallying point to achieve “unity” in the party, and positioning himself to be the legislative architect in a Trump administration.

RELATED: The Price Paul Ryan Has Paid

This explanation is good enough for even Trump’s harshest critics. “This man is a malicious and malignant force on the American political landscape,” Pete Wehner, Ryan’s onetime boss at Empower America and a former official in the George W. Bush administration, says of Trump. “Can he be somewhat less malicious and less malignant? I hope so. And if there’s anybody in the Republican party who can help with that, I think Paul Ryan is the best equipped.”

Ryan’s great gamble, then, is twofold: that he will exert a sufficient influence over Trump’s policy approach to justify the discomfort inherent in associating with him, and that Trump’s antics won’t eclipse Ryan’s efforts to promote those very policies.

Meanwhile, Ryan stands prepared — perhaps more so than before his endorsement of Trump — to exploit the high profile of his office and to draw sharp contrasts with the GOP nominee, even to reprimand him publicly. The speaker conceded their many differences before and after he announced his intention to vote for Trump. Ryan also reserved the right to criticize him — and made good on it Tuesday morning.

Ryan has determined that this wink-and-nod approach is his only recourse. Those close to him say he won’t do anything drastic, like rescind his endorsement or step down as chairman of this summer’s Republican National Convention. Rather, he will continue promoting a positive, inclusive vision for the GOP — and denouncing anything Trump says or does to undermine it.

That means that the speaker of the House will effectively be running a parallel campaign against his party’s nominee. It amounts to one of the strangest plot twists in the 2016 campaign, one with enormous implications not only for Ryan’s political future beyond November, but for his legacy as a leader in the conservative movement — and in Congress — during a transformational and perhaps determinative period for the Republican party.

Ryan knew, as soon as he’d hung up with the phone with Kevin McCarthy last October, that his life was about to be turned upside down.

McCarthy, on the morning Ryan was to nominate him as speaker of the House, told his friend he no longer wanted the job. He thought Ryan should take it, as did most of the House Republican Conference. Ryan insisted, as he had for several years, that he was not interested. But under mounting pressure from all corners of the party, and fearing for its future due to a leadership void at the national level, he agreed to consider stepping up.

What ensued was an intense, all-consuming week of soul-searching back home in Janesville, Wisc. Ryan talked with his top advisers every day; then he would disappear by himself, often into the woods with his hunting bow. The tension grew so heavy that Ryan ultimately convened a meeting in his living room with his brother Tobin and both of their wives. After a brutally honest conversation about what he was getting himself into, and several more days of fierce internal deliberations, Ryan delivered a verdict: He was open to serving as speaker.

Yet when faced with a similarly vexing predicament — whether or not to endorse Trump — Ryan put himself through no such excruciating deliberations.

Ryan, according to those close to him, had long ago determined he would have no choice but to endorse Trump.

As Ryan prepared to issue his endorsement, which came in the form of an op-ed published last Thursday in the Janesville Gazette, the speaker was relaxed and indifferent to the dilemma that many assumed would have been consuming him. Tobin Ryan, the speaker’s older brother and closest friend, says he was struck over the Memorial Day weekend — when the two went fishing and mountain biking, took turns barbequing, and sat together reading books on the patio — that there was zero talk of the elephant in the room. “Donald Trump’s name was never mentioned,” Tobin says.

“It’s a far less seminal moment for him than people think,” Tobin says of his brother’s deliberations over Trump. “He believes he’ll be able to inspire others. . . . Knowing Paul, he won’t miss any opportunity to inspire and educate and persuade Donald Trump.”

This aligns with how Ryan’s allies in Washington describe his activity in recent weeks. While reporters and House members and GOP officials beat down his door looking for answers and explanations, the speaker appeared to treat the Trump situation as an afterthought.

Ryan, according to those close to him, had long ago determined he would have no choice but to endorse Trump. He felt a duty as speaker, no matter how odious the candidate’s antics had become, to respect voters’ wishes and support his party’s nominee for president. An endorsement was almost immediately viewed as imminent, regardless of Ryan’s insistence that “real unity” with Trump was a prerequisite. In reality, there could be no such thing between the two men.

Yet the speaker needed time, both to complete the policy agenda he planned to introduce in June and to pitch Trump on it. On May 5, two days after Trump effectively clinched the nomination, Ryan appeared on CNN and said he was “not ready” to support him. An endorsement would come, but not before Ryan was armed with specific proposals he could use to wage his own campaign alongside — and, if necessary, against — his party’s presumptive nominee.

RELATED: Paul Ryan’s Endorsement of Trump Misses the Point of the Presidency

The blowback was furious and immediate, beginning with Trump’s rejoinder that he, likewise, was not yet ready to support the speaker or any of his policies. Not only was Ryan cast publicly as something of a political Hamlet, pondering the existential ramifications of rallying to Trump; he had willingly wedged himself between allies who found themselves on opposite sides of an increasingly bloody internecine conflict.

On the one side there was Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman and Ryan’s old friend from Wisconsin, who scrambled to arrange a sit-down for all three men following Ryan’s remarks on CNN and then spent the next several weeks lobbying the speaker and his staff to get on board. On the other side was Romney, who, prior to denouncing Trump as a “fraud” unfit for the presidency, had launched Ryan to national fame by naming him his running mate and forged with him a family-like bond, and who ultimately advised Ryan to accept the job of House speaker.

On the one side there was Chris Collins, a wealthy businessman-turned-congressman from upstate New York who became Trump’s first congressional endorser; Collins led a growing faction within the GOP conference that was urging the leadership to fall in line behind the presumptive nominee. On the other side there was Carlos Curbelo, the first-term Florida lawmaker who represents a heavily Hispanic district in South Florida; Curbelo said he had reached a “moral decision” not to vote for Trump, and he held out hope that Ryan might join him.

On the one side there was Ryan’s duty to maintain his House majority and unify the GOP to prevent another defeat at the hands of the Democrats. On the other side there was Ryan’s responsibility to protect his party from a hostile takeover by Trump.

“I think in holding out on the Trump endorsement, he [was] trying to get everybody on the same page so we don’t have a food fight in Cleveland,” says Wisconsin congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Ryan’s longtime mentor and close friend in Congress.

Asked if he thought it was possible to get Republicans on the same page in 2016, Sensenbrenner replied, “No, I don’t think so.”

#share#All Ryan and his team could hope was that Trump would signal an openness to the speaker’s ideas, and that Ryan in turn could claim some meaningful progress before offering an endorsement that both sides knew was inevitable.

When they met in Washington on May 12, Ryan told Trump his chief concern was getting on the same page when it came to lawmaking — not only which policies to pursue, but the proper roles of the legislative and executive branches of government. Trump was receptive to these remarks, people familiar with the meeting say, and Ryan’s positivity afterwards — he praised Trump without offering an endorsement — was genuine.

Having pledged to collaborate on the policy agenda, Ryan had his advisers brief their counterparts on the Trump campaign almost daily. The two teams made serious headway, sources say, and Trump’s aides seemed genuinely supportive of Ryan’s policy blueprints. At the same time, in multiple interviews after the meeting, Trump suggested that he would defer to Congress on certain issues, which was music to Team Ryan’s ears.

Progress on the policy front was doing little to modulate Trump’s tone, even though Ryan had warned him this would be equally important to achieving party unity and protecting down-ballot Republicans.

But progress on the policy front was doing little to modulate Trump’s tone, even though Ryan had warned him this would be equally important to achieving party unity and protecting down-ballot Republicans. Trump had acknowledged Ryan’s concerns. In the weeks after their meeting, however, his bluster ratcheted back up. During the last week of May, Trump attacked Romney (for being a “choker” and walking “like a penguin”), Rick Perry (for initially opposing him and then reversing course), Jeb Bush (for not having the “energy” to endorse him), South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (for opposing him in the state’s primary) and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez (for “not doing the job” well).

The morning after Trump’s widely reported comments about Martinez — who in addition to chairing the Republican Governors Association is the GOP’s most prominent Latina elected official — two news outlets reported that Ryan was preparing to endorse Trump. The speaker’s team quickly denied the reports. Yet the episode impressed upon Ryan’s team how, in the words of one adviser, “There’s never going to be a good time to do this.”

Asked by reporters that day for his reaction to Trump’s remarks, Ryan rolled his eyes in a momentary flash of disgust and noted that Martinez was a good governor and also his friend. He had called for a pen-and-pad meeting with reporters to preview the forthcoming GOP agenda, but most of the questions were about Trump’s latest round of controversies.

RELATED: Trump’s Outrageous Attack on Judge Curiel

A few hours later, news leaked that Ryan would be speaking with Trump by phone that evening. According to someone familiar with the call, Ryan not only admonished Trump for attacking Martinez, but reminded him that Hillary Clinton had been excoriated that day in a report by the State Department’s Inspector General regarding her use of a private e-mail server. It would behoove him, Ryan told Trump, to focus his fire on Clinton rather than on fellow Republicans.

Two days later, at a rally in San Diego, Trump picked a different target: Judge Gonzalo Curiel.


In the fall of 2014, months before he announced publicly that he would not run for president in 2016, Ryan had settled on a six-year plan.

He would assume his “dream job” as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He would serve the maximum three terms, a six-year stretch that would cover the final two years of the Obama administration and the first four years of Obama’s successor. He would, with the blessing of President Scott Walker or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, author a sweeping and historic overhaul of the tax code. He would witness it signed into law. And then he would ride into the sunset, leaving Washington behind at age 50. He would start the next chapter of his life.

Much has changed since then. John Boehner was effectively ousted from the speakership by conservative agitators. Kevin McCarthy got cold feet and decided against succeeding him. Walker, Rubio, Bush, and all the other contenders were swallowed by Trump. Republican voters commenced an ideological realignment, gravitating toward positions on issues such as trade and immigration that are more populist than conservative. And the GOP itself failed to block a candidate who has alienated the very demographic constituencies its leaders wanted to repair relations with.

One thing has not changed: Ryan’s desire to construct a policy portfolio that a Republican nominee can run on and, if elected, implement. If anything, Trump’s emergence has only added urgency to Ryan’s rollout of House Republican proposals — first on poverty, and soon on national security, the economy, the Constitution, health care, and tax reform.

Ryan’s friends worry, however, that associating with Trump could damage his brand, if not his reputation.

Depending on the outcome of the election in November, Ryan could be credited with battling Trump for the heart, soul, and future of the party.

Jimmy Kemp, president of the Jack Kemp Foundation (named after his late-congressman father, who famously served as Ryan’s mentor) recalls the “poverty summit” in South Carolina in January, which was organized by his foundation, Ryan, and Tim Scott, the GOP’s only African-American senator. The event was momentous; it attracted an audience, filled with minority faces, that listened to a Republican speaker of the House and a black Republican senator talk with Republican presidential candidates about the epidemic of cyclical socioeconomic hardship. Trump was invited but declined to attend.

“In South Carolina we wanted to highlight solutions to lift people,” Kemp says. “If Trump doesn’t agree with that message, and Paul joins up with him anyway, then people will question whether or not Paul was sincere.”

The overwhelming majority of Ryan’s allies agreed that endorsing Trump was necessary, even as they winced at the potential repercussions. Kemp was one of very few dissenters.

“I don’t think unity is critical — I think putting country before party is what most voters are looking for,” Kemp says. “Paul says he doesn’t want fake unity. I don’t think anybody wants fake unity. It needs to be genuine if it happens — but I don’t think it has to happen. I think it would be good for the country and the party to see a competition of their ideas.” 

#related#But Ryan believes that competing with and supporting Trump are not mutually exclusive. Instead, he is banking on Republicans — and voters writ large — to appreciate the nuance and the context of his endorsement, as well as the difficulty of his position.  

Paul Ryan – Budget chairman, vice-presidential nominee, Ways and Means chairman and speaker of the House, all by the age of 45 — is the most influential Republican of his generation. He wanted a wonkish legacy of reforming entitlements and simplifying the tax code; he will more likely be remembered for the starring role he played during a period of great disruption and transformation inside the GOP.

Depending on the outcome of the election in November, Ryan could be credited with battling Trump for the heart, soul, and future of the party. Or history could tell a simpler story: that he reluctantly accepted the speakership in October 2015 because he feared his party was on the brink, and seven months later, he reluctantly endorsed the man who pushed it over the edge.

— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.




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