Ryan made a determination after Trump’s election that to defy the president too forcefully would invite a counterreaction. He tends to speak of the commander in chief as if he were sharing a coping strategy on dealing with a Ritalin-deprived child. “It boomerangs,” Ryan says of being too critical of Trump. “He goes in the other direction, so that’s not effective.” He added, “The pissing match doesn’t work.”Ryan prefers to tell Trump how he feels in private. He joins a large group of Trump’s putative allies, many of whom have worked in the administration, who insist that they have shaped Trump’s thinking and behavior in private: the “Trust me, I’ve stopped this from being much worse” approach. “I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy,” Ryan tells me. “I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal.”I locked in on the word “tragedy.” It sets the mind reeling to whatever thwarted “tragedies” Ryan might be talking about. I asked for an example. “No, I don’t want to do that,” Ryan replied. “That’s more than I usually say.”
What to make of Ryan’s claims? On the one hand, it’s the perfect dodge. Unless the speaker provides more detail, the reader simply has to take it on faith that Ryan is telling the truth. It’s a completely unverifiable claim, which makes it a perfect claim for a politician to make.
On the other hand, there is a ring of truth to what Ryan says. Consider what Axios’s Mike Allen wrote in August 2017 during the depths of the Charlottesville fiasco, about why White House staffers were not resigning:
“You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill”: The most common response centers on the urgent importance of having smart, sane people around Trump to fight his worst impulses. If they weren’t there, they say, we would have a trade war with China, massive deportations, and a government shutdown to force construction of a Southern wall.
A lot of that crew left in the next six months, and hey, a lot of those worst-case scenarios have come to fruition. And this is not the first administration in which I have heard this line of thinking. Veterans of the first term of the George W. Bush administration have also told me that their finest moment of public service was shooting down a crazy, dangerous idea that was gaining momentum. Heck, I played a part in this during my stint at Treasury during the first six months of Bush 43. It’s a thankless but necessary task to prevent someone in power from doing something really stupid. If Ryan actually did that, props to him.
On the third hand, however, this dog won’t hunt. Ryan is not a White House staffer or a bureaucrat, he’s the goddamn speaker of the House, a co-equal branch of government, last time I checked the Constitution. If Ryan had said no on a few things, it was not like Trump could have fired him or forced him out. Sure, Ryan might have faced a more contentious House GOP caucus. It seems clear, however, that no one else who really wanted to be House speaker would have had the juice to oust Ryan. The very fact that Ryan talks as if he is Trump’s subordinate suggests the degree of supplication he has accepted in the Age of Trump.
There are plenty of areas where Ryan could have said no — on tariffs, on Russia policy, on protecting the special counsel’s investigation, on whether the press is the enemy of the American people — without rupturing his relationship with Trump. He could have stuck his neck out a bit more in the name of decency. Maybe he did stop some of Trump’s truly crackpot ideas from ever seeing the light of day. What we have seen from Trump, however, is an awful lot that should appall Ryan. Instead, he chose a different path. He went along with all of Trump’s illiberal rhetoric for a budget-busting, growth-enervating tax cut. History will judge that choice harshly.
I hope Ryan enjoys the extra pieces of silver he earned for making Trump’s political life more tolerable. Going forward, the rest of the country will have to borrow that sum many times over just to pay the bills.