Opinion writer

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), among all elected Republicans, may be faring the worst during the Trump era. By defending, rationalizing, excusing and ignoring President Trump’s egregious behavior and attack on democratic norms, Ryan has gone from respected wonk to disgraced toady. At a CNN town hall on Monday night, he demonstrated why he would do better to say as little as possible.

Asked a reasonable question about a timeline for Afghanistan, he answered with double talk. “And that is why I think it’s important that we don’t telegraph — I think that was a strategic mistake the last president made, that we shouldn’t telegraph our timetable when we’re leaving so that we can actually make it conditions-based, which is what is the purpose of being there. … So I think it’s very important that we not do that. But at the same time, like the president said, no blank check. You’ve got to make sure that we prosecute this to the end so that we can bring reconciliation.” So there is no timeline, but no blank check and no idea when this will end — not to mention no idea what “reconciliation” is or what happens if this is impossible. One wonders why Ryan even agreed to do this town hall, since he has literally nothing to offer good-faith questioners.

Things went from bad to worse when Charlottesville came up. Asked to comment on Trump’s remarks, he blathered on for some time decrying racism, white nationalism and hate but never condemning the president’s comments. The best he could come up with was to praise Trump’s scripted remarks on Monday, Aug. 14, and then say this about his off-the-cuff comments: “I think he made comments that were much more morally ambiguous, much more confusing. And I do think he could have done better. I think he needed to do better.” He went on to say, “So I do believe that he messed up in his comments on Tuesday, when it — it — it sounded like a moral equivocation, or at the very least moral ambiguity, when we need extreme moral clarity.” When Ryan says Trump “messed up,” he suggests falsely that this was a political faux pas, a poorly phrased comment. No, Mr. Speaker, what he said was morally abhorrent, a none-too-subtle wink to white nationalists. Trump says these things when freed from a script because that is what he really thinks. Ryan seems incapable of both disagreeing with Trump and holding him to account.

Rabbi Dena Feingold, of a synagogue in Kenosha, Wis., asked Ryan whether he would support censure: “I’d like to ask you what concrete steps that you will take to hold the president accountable when his words and executive actions either implicitly or explicitly condone, if not champion, racism and xenophobia. For example, will you support the resolution for censure?” Ryan weakly protested that it would turn into a “partisan hackfest.” Well, that would be because Republicans insist on reflexively defending the indefensible. There would be no partisanship if Ryan would stop acting like a partisan hack.

This exchange followed:

TAPPER: But if people who are applauding the president are these white supremacists and the people who are cringing after his remarks, like the ones on Tuesday, are the congregants of that synagogue in Kenosha or the Sikh temple in your congressional district where there was a horrific hate crime incident in 2010, doesn’t it need to be — is it not bigger than something that’s partisan to say people need to stand up and say more when the president does it? Forget his party for a second. He’s giving aid and comfort to people who are fans of losing, discredited, hateful ideologies.

RYAN: Oh, I don’t — I don’t — I don’t think…


TAPPER: The people who applauded his remarks on Tuesday were David Duke and Richard Spencer.

RYAN: Yeah, that’s right. That’s why I said, those remarks — he messed up on Tuesday. He was right on Monday. And he was right just about an hour ago. I think we’re — he was wrong on Tuesday.

TAPPER: When he was reading from…

RYAN: Yeah, I think he…

TAPPER: … from teleprompters, he was right.

RYAN: I think — I think he messed up on Tuesday.

Like Trump, Ryan is entirely ill-suited to the moment. When the country needs leadership, needs leaders to be bigger than party, Ryan fails again and again. He has been an enabler when the country needs political courage and moral leadership. His inability to stand up to an unfit president will remain a blot on his legacy, obscuring anything else he might accomplish.

UPDATE: Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who authored the  censure resolution, blasted Ryan in a written statement.  “By reducing the resolution censuring President Trump for his Charlottesville comments to a ‘political food fight’, Speaker Ryan has exemplified what we should fear in any leader – the failure to speak out when morally compelled to take action.” They point out that the resolution would “make it clear that the United States government does not align itself with the comments made by President Trump, and that those elected to represent the millions of Americans in the United States House of Representatives are vehemently opposed to the hate and ignorance that fuels racism and anti-Semitism.”