The Republican speaker of the House is, for all intents and purposes, calling the Republican presidential nominee a liar.
The backstory: In Wisconsin’s first congressional district, Paul Ryan faces a quixotic primary challenge from little-known businessman Paul Nehlen, who has attacked Ryan from the right on immigration and a host of other issues. Ryan, who has frequently criticized Trump in the two months since endorsing him, offered his latest rebuke over the weekend after Trump’s comments about the parents of a deceased Muslim U.S. soldier. Nehlen sprang to the Republican nominee’s defense, and Trump responded Monday night by tweeting his thanks to Nehlen.
And then, today — one week before Wisconsin’s primary elections — Trump told the Washington Post that the speaker asked for his endorsement, but said he’s withholding it.
With Ryan’s Wisconsin primary scheduled for next Tuesday, Trump praised the House speaker’s underdog opponent, Paul Nehlen, for running “a very good campaign.” Trump said that Ryan has sought his endorsement — an assertion that a Ryan spokesman denied later Tuesday — but that as of now he is only “giving it very serious consideration.”
“I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country,” Trump said. “We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I’m just not quite there yet. I’m not quite there yet.”
The speaker’s office delivered a swift and forceful response “Neither Speaker Ryan nor anyone on his team has ever asked for Donald Trump’s endorsement,” Zack Roday, Ryan’s campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “And we are confident in a victory next week regardless.”
Indeed, it would be highly unusual for Ryan to solicit Trump’s endorsement — not just because of their many political differences, but because Ryan doesn’t need Trump’s help to win his district.
A Marquette Law School poll in July showed Ryan’s favorable-unfavorable score among Wisconsin’s likely Republican voters at 85-8. (In the first district, that number was 84-9 among Republicans and voters who lean Republican, according to Marquette pollster Charles Franklin.) These numbers are consistent with plenty of additional polling that shows Ryan is immensely popular among Republicans in the state — especially in the first district, where he’s a fifth-generation member of a family that’s well-known and well-liked in his hometown of Janesville.
Trump isn’t quite as celebrated there. He lost Wisconsin’s April 5 primary by 13 points statewide, and in the first district, Ted Cruz beat him by a whopping 19 points.
In other words, Trump’s endorsement would likely be of little help to Ryan. Not that he needs it: a Washington Free Beacon poll in late May showed Ryan up 73 points, and more recently, a Congressional Leadership Fund poll in mid-July showed Ryan leading Nehlen by 49 points.
It’s true that former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor also led by large margins in polls conducted shortly before his stunning primary defeat in the summer of 2014; it’s also true that Ryan is significantly more popular with his constituents than Cantor was. And the speaker is leaving nothing to chance: With nearly $10 million in his campaign account, he has put respectable money behind a series of TV ads in the district.
With all this in mind, Trump’s decision to flex muscle at Ryan would seem strategically shortsighted. The nominee appeared eager to demonstrate who holds the power in their forced and often combative partnership. But the most likely outcome next Tuesday is a lopsided Ryan victory, which, in the wake of today’s public quarrel, will leave Trump — not the speaker — looking weak.