Nine days after deadly white supremacy protests in Charlottesville, six days after President Trump reissued blame on “both sides” for the violence, four days after the third White House advisory board resigned over Trump's reaction, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has something to say beyond the three tweets he previously issued about it.
“The immediate condemnations from left, right, and center affirmed that there is no confusion about right and wrong here. I still firmly believe this hate exists only on the fringes. But so long as it exists, we need to talk about it,” Ryan said in a Facebook post Monday morning. “We need to call it what it is. And so long as it is weaponized for fear and terror, we need to confront it and defeat it. That is why we all need to make clear there is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis. We cannot allow the slightest ambiguity on such a fundamental question.”
The bolded emphasis is his, not mine. Speaking of emphasis, the statement appears carefully formatted to highlight sentences like this:
So what is this? Part lecture to Trump? An attempt to steady the nation after its racial wounds were ripped open last week?
One thing's for sure: Even though he didn't mention the president once, Ryan went out of his way to let the world know he doesn't approve of how Trump handled Charlottesville last week. But that only opens more questions, like: Why? And why now? And why not call out the president directly?
Here are a few possibilities for why Ryan has calculated now is the best moment to take a step back from Trump.
1) He's hours away from a CNN town hall in his district
And thus, probably hours away from facing some tough questions from voters and journalists for standing by Trump when much of the business community has not. He's already set the tone for that to happen with this statement.
But Ryan has not been the most vocal Republican leader to criticize Trump.
Before this, Ryan had sent out the equivalent of 67 words — three tweets — condemning the white supremacists and slighting the president, again not by name, for not doing the same.
We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) August 15, 2017
Compare that to Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), who questioned Trump's fitness to be president. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) specifically demanded Trump acknowledge white supremacists' role.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 12, 2017
When he inevitably gets asked why he hasn't challenged the president nearly as strongly, Ryan can pivot by pointing to this statement, conveniently issued this morning.
2) He’s trying to distance himself from Trump in preparation for other big fights
September brings some serious potential policy conflicts between Congress and the Trump administration. When Congress comes back in two weeks, it has just a couple of weeks to raise the debt ceiling and pass a budget so the government doesn't shut down by Oct. 1.
Republicans are expected to clash with Trump on how to handle both those problems. Some conservative Republicans will only vote to raise the debt ceiling if Congress also cuts back federal spending. The White House has said they just want to raise the debt ceiling. The White House may want Congress to fund Trump's U.S.-Mexico border wall, which Ryan doesn't want to touch with a 10-foot-pole.
Ryan will likely be caught in the middle of all this. If he chooses to side with his fellow House Republicans, maybe it won't be as big a shock now that Ryan has distanced himself from the president on Charlottesville.
2b) But he'd still like Trump as an ally
Despite his uber-public declarations that there can be no moral equivalency when it comes to condemning Nazis, Ryan has never once mentioned Trump by name in his public statements on Charlottesville.
So maybe Ryan is trying to have the best of both words, said Molly Reynolds, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution. He wants to let Americans offended by Trump's response to Charlottesville know he's on their side. But he also wants to keep the president on his side when it comes to the debt ceiling and the budget and health care and infrastructure and tax reform and the list of Ryan's priorities goes on and on.
It's almost as if Ryan issued this nameless statement to tell Trump to just stop with the culture wars and get back to policy.
“At this point, given Trump’s weaknesses, it’s more about Ryan hoping Trump doesn’t dig in on an untenable position and make the intraparty divisions in the GOP worse than it is,” Reynolds said.
3) He’s trying to be the moral conscience of the party
Trump has made pretty clear through his Charlottesville response that he doesn't want to or doesn't see his job as a guiding star of morality for the country.
Ryan is the total opposite kind of politician. He has worked hard to frame himself as a Republican leader who cares just as much about lifting up poor people as tax cuts for businesses, styling himself after conservative economists like former GOP congressman Jack Kemp.
We need to close the skills gap in this country to get Americans back on the path to upward mobility. pic.twitter.com/3hTyetZkzx
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) December 16, 2016
Ryan is one of the top-ranking Republicans in Washington. After thinking about it for a week, he may have decided he's going to give Republican voters another path beside the one Trump paved when he equivocated on the racially tinged deadly violence in Charlottesville.
A sentence Ryan bolded: “The notion that anyone is intrinsically superior to anyone else runs completely counter to our founding principles.”
Whatever Ryan's true motives on taking a step back from Trump now, we'll find out more Monday night. The last sentence of his statement suggests he plans on elaborating more when the cameras are on: “I look forward to talking more about this tonight at my CNN town hall in Racine, Wisconsin.”