Politico reports that on Wednesday morning, not even 24 hours after Donald Trump effectively clinched the Republican nomination, Paul Ryan convened his top advisers for a call. With Congress out of session, Ryan was bouncing between multiple states, raising the piles of money needed to keep House Republicans in the majority.
But Donald Trump was on his mind. The speaker could not — at least at this point — support him. And he wanted to talk through how to proceed.
Ryan never expected Trump to lock up the nomination so quickly. He didn’t think Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would drop out of the race in May. In fact, Ryan’s orbit was preparing for a contested convention in Cleveland, where he is slated to serve as chairman, effectively the emcee of the Trump coronation.
The decision was made quickly. The next day, he would go on CNN and make it official, in no uncertain terms.
“I think what a lot of Republicans want to see is that we have a standard-bearer that bears our standards,” he told Jake Tapper in the bombshell interview that was taped shortly before it aired on Thursday afternoon.
“I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?” Ryan added. “There are lots of questions that conservatives, I think, are gonna want answers to, myself included. I want to be a part of this unifying process. I want to help to unify this party.”
Ryan pre-taped the interview and didn’t watch it live. He was at a campaign rally with Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. Ryan gave GOP Chairman and fellow Wisconsinite Reince Priebus a heads up before it aired.
Trump’s campaign was stunned by Ryan’s interview. Earlier on Thursday, campaign sources said, advisers to the candidate had reached out to Ryan’s office with an invitation: Would the speaker be able to meet with Trump for a one-on-one meeting to discuss the fall campaign and the party’s agenda? The invitation was passed on to a staffer, and the campaign didn’t hear back immediately from Ryan’s office.
The next thing the Trump campaign knew, there was Ryan on national TV. What just happened, aides asked? They got in touch with Ryan’s office. The invitation was off the table, the campaign sources said, who believe Ryan hadn’t received word of the offer to meet personally with Trump by the time the speaker went on TV.
An aide to Ryan responded that there was no offer for a one-on-one meeting. There was chatter about a staff-level discussion, the person said, and a meeting between Trump and a large group of House Republicans. Both were being brokered by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a prominent Trump backer. Ryan, the aide added, is happy to meet with Trump.
Trump responded to Ryan hours after the interview.
“I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda. Perhaps in the future, we can work together and come to an agreement about what is best for the American people,” he said in a statement. “They have been treated so badly for so long that it is about time for politicians to put them first!”
Now, the Ryan-Trump relationship will take center stage in a way few ever expected. Ryan’s decision will likely force Trump to come to Capitol Hill and prove his mettle. Trump’s team Thursday was already trying to set up meetings in Washington, and Ryan’s orbit would welcome an audience with the party’s presumptive nominee.
For the past four months, as Trump soared in the polls, Ryan has watched warily. A ban on Muslims in the U.S.? That’s not what this country is about, he said. A hesitance to disavow white supremacists? Really? Trump even blasted free-trade agreements — pacts that Ryan strongly supports.
But after repeating the standard line for months that he would support the party’s nominee, the country’s highest-ranking Republican could not bring himself to do so once Trump actually became that person. And so, in the most searing and drastic defection of this wild campaign season, Ryan broke ranks with the brash New York billionaire.
The decision will shape Ryan’s political future in the short and long term, and could have a real effect on the outcome of the 2016 election. Immediately, the move could give the 200-plus Republicans up for reelection — particularly those in the swing districts that will decide the size of the GOP’s majority, or even whether it keeps the House — a measure of cover from Trump’s unpopularity. Many of them think the presumptive nominee is too politically crude to represent the party.
Ryan’s move came just hours after Trump tweeted “I love Hispanics!” along with a picture of him eating a taco bowl, not exactly the kind of fence-mending with a growing voting bloc that GOP brass had in mind for Trump’s general election pivot. But Ryan’s decision to buck the nominee-in-waiting was borne out of opposition to Trump’s principles, not any particular policy, according to a source familiar with his thinking.
Of course, much will be read into this decision. Ryan has ruled out launching a white-knight bid for president this year, and giving Trump the stiff arm isn’t likely to change that calculus. But the speaker has acknowledged that a bid in 2020 is possible and, intentional or not, this could be part of an effort to pick up the pieces if Republicans lose the White House this fall.
Ryan’s break from Trump contrasted sharply with Mitch McConnell’s more muddled positioning on the party’s standard-bearer.
“I have committed to supporting the nominee chosen by Republican voters, and Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee, is now on the verge of clinching that nomination,” the Senate majority leader said in a written statement Wednesday night.
Ryan is also preparing to roll out a separate governing agenda for the fall that his members can run on, a clear sign that he thinks the substance of the 2016 contest does not represent the party he has spent 20 years trying to build.
“The future of America is on the line. No one should support Hillary Clinton. Let’s make that clear,” Ryan told CNN. “To be the party and climb the final hill and win, we need a standard-bearer that can unify all conservatives and the wings of the party and then go to the country with an appealing agenda that’s appealing to the Democrats. We have work to do on the front. The nominee has to lead in that effort.”