WASHINGTON, D.C.: With one eye on Donald Trump’s implosion and another on maintaining his party’s majority in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan is the man in the middle – struggling with whether to stand by the Republicans’ man, or bail.
For the past year as the nation’s top elected Republican, Ryan’s role has been to keep the House of Representatives – and its raucous, fractured Republicans – on an even keel, while shepherding conservative legislation through Congress and onto the president’s desk.
But he is clearly walking a tightrope as he navigates an unprecedented presidential race and his party’s shoot-from-the-hip nominee.
After hesitating to come on board with Trump earlier this year, he has sought for months now to reconcile his party with the controversial billionaire non-politician at the top of the ticket.
But on Monday he appeared to have had enough, telling hundreds of fellow House Republicans on a conference call that he would no longer “defend” Trump, and instead spend the remainder of the campaign focusing on protecting the Republican congressional majorities.
It was an unprecedented breach between the intellectual leader of the Republican Party and its nominee in the late stages of a US presidential campaign.
The extraordinary move means Ryan has concluded that down-ballot candidates are at increasing risk of going down with Trump, whose campaign has been in free-fall since the release of a 2005 video in which he was caught making lewd remarks about women.
The speaker said he would work to keep Congress in Republican hands, in order to ensure that the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would not get a “blank check” from a Democratically controlled House and Senate.
Stunned analysts saw it as a hammer blow to Trump’s already wilting chances of defeating Clinton on November 8.
But Trump himself sounded downright combative, tweeting it was “so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.”
“I don’t want his support,” Trump snapped Tuesday on Fox News. “I don’t care about his support.”
On Wednesday he piled on, complaining that Republican leaders were engaged in “a whole sinister deal” to deprive him of support.
Some Republicans were furious at Ryan for distancing himself from the nominee, including congressman Steve King of New York.
“The better Donald Trump does, the better everybody out here on the ticket does all across America,” King told CNN.
That is not true in every case, said presidential historian David Pietrusza, who argues that whether Trump helps or hurts a lawmaker will vary from district to district.
It is a dangerous move either way,” said Pietrusza, 66.
For Ryan, a conservative Catholic who said he was disgusted by Trump’s recorded remarks, distancing himself from the nominee was less a matter of political calculation than “a question of living with yourself.”
Ryan, just 46, was considered a “young gun” when he entered Congress from Wisconsin in 1999: wonkish and handsome with a midwestern reserve, brimming with confidence and smarts, and apparently eager to climb the political ladder.
By 2012, he emerged as Republican Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate, and suddenly was a household name. When Romney lost to incumbent Barack Obama, many openly spoke of Ryan as the party’s future.
But Ryan sees his immediate task as maintaining the Republican status quo in Congress.
The conservative wing of the party, known as the Freedom Caucus, has fought the Republican leadership at nearly every turn, and some were livid at Ryan’s move against Trump.
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher called him “cowardly.”
Trump running mate Mike Pence, who said he was “offended” by his boss’s language in the tape but ultimately stood by him, expressed disappointment with Ryan.