A decision Monday by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to not campaign with or defend Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump through the November election sparked a public feud with his party’s standard-bearer within a matter of hours, suggesting that a widening split within the GOP could reverberate long after the presidential race is decided.
Ryan’s move — and a blunt assessment of the race that he and other congressional leaders delivered during a conference call with House GOP lawmakers Monday morning — underscored the perilous choice Republican officials now face in the wake of Friday’s release of a 2005 videotape in which Trump made lewd comments about women:
They can remain in line with their nominee, which would please their base but could alienate swing voters critical to maintaining their hold on Congress. Or they could renounce Trump and offend Republicans eager for a direct confrontation with Hillary Clinton and her husband.
For his part, the speaker — who canceled an appearance with Trump after the videotape surfaced Friday — did neither. He won’t publicly campaign with Trump, but he also did not rescind his endorsement of his party’s controversial nominee or back away from his pledge to vote for him.
One GOP lawmaker said Ryan (R-Wis.) was confronted on the call by at least a half-dozen members from districts ranging from California to Ohio who bristled at any attempt to distance the party from Trump.
“He got huge pushback like I’ve never seen before from members from across the country just saying that was the wrong move — and even if it cost them the House,” said one lawmaker on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the private discussion.
Late in the call, after several members had criticized GOP leaders, Ryan got back on the line to assure them that he was not planning to rescind his endorsement. But that appeared to do little to assure the pro-Trump contingent.
“A number of people said: You can’t have it both ways. You’ve either got to get out and be wholly supportive . . . or it really doesn’t matter,” the GOP lawmaker said.
The lawmaker, who represents a safe Republican district where Trump is popular, told The Washington Post that he had heard much the same from his own constituents: “They’re just so fed up with Washington, D.C., that all the rest of this stuff is a side point. . . . They’re willing to overlook a whole lot to try to take back the country.”
But Rep. Charlie Dent — a moderate who does not support Trump — also spoke up on the call, saying, “Our nominee should step aside, though I realize it is probably logistically impractical at this moment.”
Dent said he warned his fellow Republicans: “Does anyone on the call not think there are worse revelations to come? I would be shocked if there were not more revelations, and what’s our plan when the next one hits?”
Trump lashed out at Ryan on Monday, tweeting that the speaker “should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee.” Within a matter of minutes, more than 6,300 people had favorited the tweet.
The widening chasm between GOP establishment leaders and Trump, who is now emboldened given his assertive debate performance Sunday night, has moved the party into uncharted territory in the final weeks of an already volatile and unpredictable presidential contest. Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, took to the airwaves Monday to make it clear that Trump intends to remain on the offensive for the duration of the campaign. And Trump’s senior communications adviser, Jason Miller, tweeted that “nothing’s changed” after the congressional call, because his candidate has always been a Washington outsider.
And in an interview Monday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a close ally of Trump’s, said his performance would make it more difficult for Republicans to abandon him. “They’ve really raised the ante on Republicans who want to cut and run,” he said. “How can you have watched that debate without knowing he won?”
Some Republican lawmakers, such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.), questioned during the conference call Monday why GOP leaders hesitate to back Trump, citing Clinton’s weakness as a candidate.
In an email Monday, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said that “there is no update on [the speaker’s] position at this time” in regards to endorsing Trump. But she added, “The speaker is going to spend the next month focused entirely on protecting our congressional majorities.”
In withdrawing his public support from Trump, Ryan is essentially giving other Republican lawmakers license to do the same if they oppose Trump’s statements and are concerned about their reelection chances. After the 2005 video emerged, Ryan said he was “disgusted” by Trump’s comments but did not withdraw his support.
“You all need to do what’s best for you and your district,” Ryan said on the conference call, according to two participants who spoke anonymously because of the private nature of the call.
With this move, Ryan at least partially joined a growing group of high-profile Republican lawmakers who have renounced their support of Trump following the disclosure Friday by The Post of an 11-year-old videotape of the businessman talking casually about kissing and groping women. That group includes Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and John McCain (Ariz.), both in tough reelection races, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah).
Republicans who participated in the post-debate conference call Monday morning are becoming increasingly worried about their chances of holding on to their 30-seat House majority as Trump lags dangerously behind Clinton in the polls. One described the tone of the call as “nervous.”
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey released Monday showed Trump taking a big dip after the release of the videotape, with Clinton leading Trump by double digits among likely voters, 46 percent to 35 percent, in a four-way contest. Democrats had a seven-point lead on the question of which party voters would like to see control Congress.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, briefed lawmakers on the House battlegrounds, warning that the “ground is shifting,” according to a lawmaker on the call. Walden said that Republicans should continue to poll their races and that winning would be equivalent to “landing an airplane in a hurricane: You have to trust the instruments.”
The speaker plans to spend the next month, he told lawmakers on the conference call, “only campaigning for House seats and not . . . to promote or defend Trump,” according to a GOP lawmaker. Ryan plans to campaign in 17 states and 42 cities in October to help preserve his majority.
One member who spoke out during the call — Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), a low-key lawmaker who represents struggling industrial areas along the eastern Ohio River — issued a statement late Monday saying he would “continue to support the top of our Republican ticket” while also saying he would “continue to admire and support Speaker Ryan’s leadership in a very challenging time.”
“I am a husband, father of two daughters, and I have four granddaughters,” he said. “And, while I find Donald Trump’s locker room comments from ten years ago offensive, indefensible and regrettable, they don’t change the fact that Hillary Clinton has proven she’ll put personal politics over our national security.
The House GOP call was an opportunity for members to check in after a chaotic weekend in which dozens of GOP lawmakers revoked their support for Trump after the release of the video. Lawmakers spent the weekend fielding a barrage of questions about their support for Trump, without any formal guidance from party leaders.
Ryan typically holds weekly sessions for his members, referring to the confabs as “family meetings” where members are invited to speak their minds. The meetings have become a mainstay for a House GOP that has been plagued by infighting and crises for more than a year.
Pence made his first campaign appearance since news of the videotape had broken, telling a group in Charlotte on Monday that it had been “an interesting few days.” He lauded Trump for apologizing during the debate for his vulgar remarks about forcing himself on women in 2005.
“It takes a big man to know when he’s wrong and admit it,” said Pence, adding, “Donald Trump last night showed that he’s a big man.”
The governor also brought up his Christian faith in his explanation of why he continues to stand by Trump, saying he believes in “grace” and “forgiveness.”
Pence made a similar pitch Monday while speaking on Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends,” even as he made clear that his former colleagues in Congress should remember that voters, rather than elected officials, will determine who succeeds President Obama.
“My hope is that people across the country, including elected officials, believe in redemption as much as I do,” he said. “I’m happy to talk to any of my friends in leadership. But really, this election is really in the hands of the American people.”
Democrats suggested that any effort by Republicans to distance themselves from their nominee at this point in the race would not shield them from the repercussions of his candidacy this fall.
“I understand why they’re doing that, but Paul Ryan and other leaders in the Republican Party — there was a time where they could have spoken out. That time was this summer. And obviously it’s too late now,” Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters aboard the campaign’s plane Monday while en route to Detroit. “Somewhat of a civil war is breaking out in the Republican Party, but I think that Donald Trump didn’t become the nominee of his party on his own. These leaders help legitimize him and I think they have a lot to answer for, and the voters, I imagine, will hold them accountable.”
And even as the actions Trump described in the 2005 videotape continued to spark renewed controversy this week, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told a reporter from the Weekly Standard that when it came to Trump’s allusions to forcibly kissing women and grabbing them by their genitals, ” I don’t characterize that as sexual assault.”
After someone tweeted in response that Sessions’s comments were akin to when then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) torpedoed his 2012 Senate bid to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) by referring to “legitimate rape,” McCaskill said that was “not fair to Todd Akin.”
Paul Kane in Washington, Philip Rucker in St. Louis, Sean Sullivan in Charlotte and John Wagner in Detroit contributed to this report.