The more things change for Donald Trump, the more they stay the same for GOP leadership.
Much was made Monday of two conference calls that took place six hours apart: one with Speaker Paul Ryan and his House Republicans, the other with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and his RNC members. Against the backdrop of Sunday night’s bruising presidential debate — the first 30 minutes of which were dominated by discussion of a decade-old recording of Trump bragging about getting away with sexual assault — rumors were flying in regards to whether the party leadership would continue to stand by its nominee. Politico even published a story late Sunday night reporting that Ryan had discussed the possibility of rescinding his endorsement of Trump.
Ultimately, however, the talk of abandoning Trump was mostly just that — talk.
Ryan told his members on Monday morning that he would no longer defend Trump; that they should do what’s best for themselves in their individual districts; and that moving forward he would focus his time and energy exclusively on protecting the Republican majorities in Congress. As lawmakers and aides on the call leaked details to reporters, Ryan’s announcement sparked a media frenzy. Here’s how the New York Times covered it:
“House Speaker Paul D. Ryan dealt a hammer blow to Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy Monday, dashing any remaining semblance of party unity and inviting fierce backlash from his own caucus by announcing that he would no longer defend Mr. Trump’s candidacy. … Ryan informed Republican lawmakers on a morning conference call that he would never again campaign alongside Mr. Trump and would dedicate himself instead to defending the party’s majority in Congress, …”
Ryan’s declaration was indeed a blow to “any remaining semblance of party unity.” But practically speaking, there was nothing new about his announcement. Ryan has never come to Trump’s defense amid controversy; in fact, the speaker has been his most consistent intra-party critic since offering what he considered an obligatory endorsement of the presumptive nominee back in June. Ryan has always encouraged his members to do what they felt was necessary in their districts; moreover, he encouraged delegates to vote their conscience at the GOP convention. And Ryan has never campaigned alongside Trump; their first joint appearance was scheduled for this past Saturday at a small event in the speaker’s Wisconsin district, but Ryan canceled it due to Friday’s news.
In other words, by leaving Trump to fend for himself — and by focusing his efforts on preserving the GOP’s congressional majorities — Ryan is maintaining the status quo.
“That was his focus already,” Priebus told NATIONAL REVIEW shortly after Monday’s call, when told of Ryan’s message to his members. “That’s not a change in his position.”
What made today’s remarks from Ryan feel different, and much more dramatic, was the perception that he was effectively conceding the presidential election to Hillary Clinton. The speaker’s comments, coming the morning after an apparent trial balloon that was floated via Politico, gave the impression — to reporters and lawmakers alike — that he was surrendering the White House. “House Speaker Paul Ryan is all but conceding Hillary Clinton will be the next president,” screamed an Associated Press news alert just before noontime. Ryan’s office scrambled to counter that narrative, but it was too late.
Many of his members had taken the same meaning from Ryan’s remarks. Some pushed back forcefully, saying the party wasn’t doing enough to support Trump and was foolish to give up on him this early. Others warned of the dire implications for the Supreme Court if Clinton becomes president. The uproar forced Ryan to jump back into the discussion and clarify that he was not, in fact, rescinding his endorsement of Trump. His office also told the AP that Ryan “still intends to vote for Trump.” (To summarize the lack of new developments: Ryan stands by his endorsement of Trump; still plans to vote for him; still won’t campaign alongside him; and is continuing to urge his members to do whatever’s necessary to win their own races. It’s difficult to look at this and conclude that Ryan has abandoned Trump — especially given that some 60 GOP officeholders, including 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, have already renounced him unequivocally.)
This tightrope Ryan now straddles is a testament to the fragile dynamics of Election Day turnout and the vulnerability being felt by his rank-and-file members. Some in conservative-leaning districts would find it difficult to win reelection without the votes of Trump loyalists; for them, denouncing the GOP nominee defies the laws of political self-preservation. Others, meanwhile, represent competitive suburban swing districts where Trump is immensely unpopular; they need to distance themselves as much as possible between now and November 8. The speaker, whose party can lose 29 seats this November and still keep its majority, knows it’s hard to help some members without hurting others. The one thing none of them can afford is for on-the-fence Republican voters in their districts to stay home; in this vein, Ryan realizes that headlines about “conceding” to Clinton could depress turnout and harm down-ballot GOP candidates across the country.
Priebus faces the same dilemma.
The RNC chair remained conspicuously quiet in the aftermath of Friday’s reporting. He canceled his Sunday show appearances and avoided the media at that evening’s debate. (Priebus did, however, fly with Trump to St. Louis.) There was considerable speculation over the weekened as to whether the RNC would stop spending on Trump’s behalf and redirect its resources to down-ballot contests. Several news reports suggested the order had been given, but GOP sources cautioned that no final decisions had been handed down.
There was ample reason to consider such a maneuver: Trump trailed in the polls before the tape’s release, both nationally and in nearly every must-win battleground state, and his numbers would soon be going south in a hurry. (Indeed, Monday’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Clinton now leading by 11 points.) Continuing to spend millions of dollars on Trump’s campaign would be throwing good money after bad. And yet, dumping him could somehow do greater damage, even with his “locker room talk” setting off a firestorm and further alienating women voters from the Republican party. It’s the same risk Ryan encountered on Monday morning: By pulling the plug on its nominee, the GOP is inviting millions of voters to stay home on November 8.
In the end, it was a no-brainer. Priebus organized the conference call to inform members that “nothing has changed” and that Trump’s campaign is still working in hand-in-hand with the committee, according to RNC sources. Priebus also dismissed rampant speculation that Trump could be replaced as the GOP nominee. (Earlier in the day, when asked if any such mechanism exists, he told NATIONAL REVIEW, “No. Not under Rule 9, and not even in practicality.” This reaffirms what RNC officials have said privately — that unless Trump dies or willingly withdraws, there is no way to take him off the ticket.)
These judgments could change before Election Day, of course. Priebus could instruct the party to steer resources away from Trump if his numbers continue to collapse. Ryan could disown him entirely in the event somebody unearths an even more damaging bit of opposition research. And even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who continues to support Trump but has stopped answering questions about him, could decide to cut ties with the party’s nominee if drastic measures are needed. Any of these developments would prove exceedingly newsworthy, and also would validate the decisions made by the dozens of Republicans who have already defected from Trump.
For now, though, what’s most notable is the GOP’s unwavering approach in the face of unprecedented crisis. After the most ruinous 72-hour stretch in the modern history of the Republican party, its leadership shows no sign of renouncing the man who has brought them to the brink of electoral armageddon.