Speaker Ryan tells GOP he won't defend Trump
Washington — In a sign of his party's deep and relentless turmoil over its presidential nominee, House Speaker Paul Ryan told fellow GOP lawmakers Monday that he will neither defend Donald Trump nor campaign with him before the election.
They should feel free to handle Trump as they see fit, he said.
But Ryan, during a conference call with GOP colleagues, stopped short of rescinding his own tepid endorsement of Trump. There is "no update" in his position on Trump "at this time," an aide said.
Trump responded to Ryan on Twitter Monday: "Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee."
The Republican discord was another breathtaking chapter in a precedent-shattering campaign — the party’s top elected official virtually washing his hands of its nominee, the nominee firing back.
Their on-again, off-again cold war could come at great political cost to both men and to their party, which may endure the fallout of this fractious campaign for years to come. The two represent utterly different political styles — one confrontational and militant, one affable and institutional — and very different visions of the party's future.
For Trump’s campaign, it was one more sign he hasn’t contained the political damage of recent weeks, despite a no-holds-barred debate performance that pleased his supporters. For Ryan, his latest break with the nominee risks a backlash from some members of his caucus and from pro-Trump voters who see him undermining the cause of defeating Clinton.
Ryan's approach also ensures the speaker will continue to field fire from both sides of the Trump divide. His message to colleagues Monday was not a dramatic departure from his past stance on Trump, which has been an awkward balancing act of tight-lipped support and pointed criticism.
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel in June, Ryan said he did not have a problem with fellow Republicans who refuse to support Trump.
"I think people are going to make their own minds up. ...I wouldn't tell a person to do something that they believe violates their conscience," Ryan said at the time. “I'm not going to hold an individual person's decision against them."
In Monday’s conference call, Ryan told GOP House members, “You all need to do what’s best for you in your district,” according to someone on the call.
Democrats immediately seized on Ryan's decision not to formally revoke his support for the GOP nominee. Hillary Clinton tweeted, "Ryan is still endorsing Trump." Donna Brazile, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement, "It’s clear that Ryan still believes Trump has the judgment and temperament to be president.Trump is not fit to be commander-in-chief and Paul Ryan isn’t fit to lead the House of Representatives anymore.”
Ryan suggested in the call he is willing to live with "the political pressure" but said he was doing so for the sake of protecting the party’s House majority, which could be threatened by a decisive Trump defeat. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken after the story of the tape broke, Trump is now trailing Clinton by double digits, and likely voters preferred a Democratic Congress by a margin of 49% to 42%.
The speaker told colleagues he would devote the remainder of the campaign to making sure that Clinton does not get a “blank check” in the form of a Democratic Congress.
Ryan political spokesman Zack Roday said Monday that statement was not a concession that Trump would lose to Clinton.
"He made it clear on the call he's not conceding the presidential race," Roday said.
The conference call with House Republicans came three days after an explosive tape surfaced of Trump crudely bragging about making sexual advances on women.
It came one day after Trump responded to the furor by lashing out in the second presidential debate at both Hillary and Bill Clinton over former President Clinton’s history with women.
Ryan’s stance on Trump underscores the no-win bind his party is in over Trump. Their nominee is tumbling in the polls, and the latest revelations about him are political poison. But he retains a core of support in the party that may punish GOP politicians who abandon Trump. Some Republicans think the best way to hold their congressional majorities is to unite behind Trump — and several of them pushed back hard at Ryan in Monday's call. Others believe it is freeing members to distance themselves from Trump.
In an interview on CBS “This Morning” Monday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said, “I certainly hope Speaker Ryan keeps his word and his endorsement of Donald Trump. Speaker Ryan, of course, took to the stage in Wisconsin at his event and faced some boos from the crowd (from) those who were expecting to see Donald Trump.”
That was a reference to a Wisconsin GOP event Saturday that Trump was scheduled to attend before Ryan revoked the invitation in the wake of the Trump tape.
Conway also said of Republicans who don’t support Trump, “We’re going to take the case directly to their voters.”
Wisconsin Republican Reid Ribble said in an interview he was struck by the pushback in Monday's call from many GOP lawmakers who did not want to abandon Trump. Ribble said almost all the rank-and-file members who spoke urged their colleagues to continue supporting the nominee.
“I found that a little surprising,” said Ribble, who was an early Trump critic and has said since last year he would not vote for him under any circumstances.
The outgoing congressman added that he will be shocked if more tapes of Trump don't come out.
In the high-profile race to fill the 8th District seat Ribble is vacating, a spokeswoman for Republican Mike Gallagher had no response Monday to a campaign ad attacking him for supporting Trump. Tom Nelson, Gallagher's Democratic opponent, is criticizing Gallagher for putting the GOP and Trump ahead of the interests of the country.
"Mike Gallagher says we have to support Donald Trump," the ad says. "No, we don't. We don't have to support Mike Gallagher, either."
In phone interviews Monday, U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) declined to mention Trump but essentially stood by the nominee, saying that he was an “issues voter” whose issues would be poorly served by voting for Clinton.
“I am not prepared to have four more years of open borders, four more years of over-regulation of industry and four more years of spiraling welfare rolls just yet,” Grothman said.
Voting for a third party or leaving the ballot for president blank was also unacceptable because of the effect on those issues, he said.
Grothman noted that in Sunday's debate, Clinton said the United States is "not carrying anywhere near the load that Europe and others are" in helping humanitarian refugees from Syria. He said primarily Muslim nations should take more refugees instead.
"It shows that if she wins we can expect a big new influx of Middle Eastern immigrants," Grothman said. "I don't think we can let her become president."
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner also stuck by his party's choice.
“Mr. Trump is an imperfect nominee, but Hillary Clinton is a bet America cannot afford to make,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) wouldn’t agree to an interview Monday with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but he said in a statement and a Fox News appearance that he was standing by Trump.
"Trump's recent comments are reprehensible,” Duffy said in his statement. “I never endorsed Donald Trump because of his stance on women or his family values. I endorsed him for his policies — defeating ISIS, securing our border and growing our economy.”
On Fox on Sunday he said, “As a Republican and conservative, where else do I have to go? I have no home in Hillary Clinton, so I'm stuck with the only guy that matches my economic positions and my global ideas, which is Donald Trump.”
None of the elected officials publicly second-guessed Ryan's handling of the party nominee.
“Every Republican is in a difficult spot,” Ribble said. “You have a very passionate base of Republicans that supports Donald Trump. … They’re kind of a different group of folks that might not have been supporting Mitt Romney. They’re certainly more vocal. But at same time … it’s really the independent voters for the most part that decide elections in this country. And you have to worry about alienating them. Threading this needle is difficult.”
A Democratic colleague of Ryan's, Milwaukee's Gwen Moore, said the speaker was a "decent person" and "we're seeing his conscience pricked in public."
Moore said: "He clearly is in a quandary, having taken over this job and has a nominee that is sickening. But it's all about putting someone in place so that they can put their agenda forward."
For Republicans holding state office, silence ruled the day.
State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) didn’t say whether they or their members would back away from Trump.
The most closely watched state Senate race features Republican Dan Feyen and Democrat Mark Harris. Feyen did not respond to an email asking if he backed Trump.
Likewise, state Sens. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) did not return phone calls to say where they stood.
Outgoing Sen. Mary Lazich, among prominent Wisconsin politicians in a group dubbed The Wisconsin Women for Trump Coalition, stuck to a script Tuesday in responding to questions about Trump without mentioning him by name.
Asked if she had any comment about what Trump dismissed as "locker room talk," Lazich responded: "I'm not casting a stone and I'm voting Republican."
Asked whether she had any comment about Trump in light of Ryan's decision to neither defend Trump nor campaign with him, she said: "I'm not casting a stone."
Asked whether she wanted to add her perspective to the conversation, Lazich repeated: "I'm not casting a stone and I'm voting Republican."
Two other prominent Republicans in the group — former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow and Sen. Albert Darling (R-River Hills) — did not respond to requests for comment.
Journal Sentinel reporters Jason Stein, Patrick Marley, Bill Glauber, Mary Spicuzza and Karen Herzog contributed to this report.