On Thursday, at a weekly news briefing during a week that has been anything but normal, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) tried desperately to steer his small slice of Washington back into some normalcy. Here are some excerpts from how Ryan started his briefing in one of the most dramatic news cycles of President Trump's presidency:
- “This is another busy week as we continue to make progress on our agenda for the American people.”
- “Today, the House continues to act on legislation to make sure that our law enforcement agencies have the support and the tools that they need to keep us safe.”
- “Yesterday, the House acted on a new round of sanctions against the Syrian regime in order to cut off resources for [President Bashar al-]Assad's war machine.”
- “Also this week, the House approved landmark federal I.T. reform legislation that will reduce wasteful spending and enhance the government's information security.”
It was in vain. At news conferences, reporters get to ask questions. And after Ryan was done talking about what he wanted to talk about, reporters immediately started asking him about the half a dozen massive news stories from the past 12 hours alone that, taken together, raise even more questions about whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
A sampling of how the rest of the news conference went now that reporters were steering the conversation:
Question: Senator McConnell said, “We could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things,” saying basically it could undercut or hamper your agenda. Do you agree with that assessment?
Ryan (excerpted from full answer): "Well, yeah, it's always nice to have less drama."
Question: And what's your understanding about why [the Justice Department appointed a special counsel to investigate Trump and Russia]?
Ryan (excerpted from full answer): "I believe that the professionals at the Justice Department need to do their jobs independently, objectively and thoroughly."
Question: But considering the maelstrom that we've dealt with … there have been some members who have said, “We might be better with Vice President Pence.”
Ryan (excerpted from full answer): "Oh, good grief."
The disparity between what Ryan wanted to talk about and what most journalists were asking him was so glaring that at one point, the House speaker interjected to say: “People are consumed with the news of the day, but we are here working on people's problems every day.”
A reporter called him out: “But look at what you're being asked about!”
In other words: You may want to think that the media is asking this stuff just to annoy you or to manufacture drama to get clicks, but that's not why we're asking about Russia. It's the Trump administration that is drowning out everything you want to talk about — and could even slow down everything you want to do.
It arguably already is. The myriad investigations into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign has stolen significant time, energy, lawmakers' attention, voters' attention and, yes, the media's attention away from what Ryan had hoped to be talking about now that Republicans control Washington for the first time in a decade.
Over the past few days, the speaker has been trying to blunt the narrative that Trump's drama will spill over into Congress.
“I just think it's very important that people know that we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said Thursday. “And sure, drama is not — not helpful in getting things done, but we're still getting things done. And that's the important point.”
Depends how you define “getting things done.” Is passing a health-care bill that's now stuck in the Senate, which is consumed with investigating whether Trump tried to block an FBI investigation, “getting things done?” Is having a president who is tweeting about “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history” instead of talking about tax reform “getting things done”?
And even if the House of Representatives is “getting things done,” that doesn't mean what it gets done will become law. The House is a majority-rule place, which means that what Republicans want to pursue, they can. The Senate is entirely different, a chamber that stops and starts based on the whims of each of its 100 members. Senate Democrats are already talking about filibustering legislation unless Trump nominates an FBI director they can support. And we haven't even started talking about how the Department of Justice's appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia could slow down Trump and his agenda.
Thursday was but one news conference — and it's not the first time that lawmakers have tried to steer news away from the controversy of the day. But it was an illuminating news conference. As The Fix's Aaron Blake illustrated this week, Republicans like Ryan had a tacit pact with their president that went something like this:
With each news conference where their message gets drowned out by Trump, with each headline that drags the White House further into chaos (or drags House Republicans into the drama themselves), it's getting harder and harder for Republicans to uphold their end of the bargain.
The day they decide that Trump's drama just isn't worth it anymore is a day that should worry the president. Today may not be that day, but it was no doubt a frustrating one for Ryan, who just wanted to talk about tax reform.