House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has not hidden the fact he disapproves of President Trump equating white supremacists in Charlottesville with counterprotesters. But on Monday night he also made clear he’s not going to do much about it beyond a 500-word tsk-tsk Facebook post that doesn’t even mention the president by name.
Nine days after a woman died when an alleged white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd, Ryan posted a statement on Facebook saying: “There is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis.”
The aim was to set the tone for a CNN town hall in his Wisconsin district later Monday. When Ryan got in front of the cameras, he didn't do much more than put a name to his nameless criticism on Facebook.
“I do believe that he messed up in his comments Tuesday,” Ryan said at the town hall, “when it sounded like moral equivalency, or at the very least, moral ambiguity, when we need extreme moral clarity.”
Okay then, asked constituents and CNN host Jake Tapper. Will you ask the president to apologize, like Mitt Romney said the president should?
Ryan said he doesn’t think Trump needs to: “I think just he needs to do better and I think he just did.”
Would you support a censure of the president by the House? That’s a hard no. Ryan: “That would be so counterproductive, if we descend this issue into some partisan hackfest.”
Is a Facebook post and three tweets enough to set the country straight? No, but we “all need to do better,” Ryan said vaguely.
Ryan briefly allowed that he’d consider bills to limit white supremacists’ reach on the Internet. But he quickly followed up by saying the ugly sewer of racism that burbled to the surface in Charlottesville is “beyond a bill in Congress.”
“This is our society. This is our culture. This is our values,” Ryan said, by way of explaining that he thinks Congress getting involved would probably only politicize it.
Ryan has gone about as far as he’s willing to go to stand up to this president on Charlottesville. While some of his colleagues in the Senate are questioning Trump’s fitness to lead, other party leaders are directly calling on the president to apologize for giving cover to white supremacists, and business leaders ditched Trump’s advisory boards en masse, Ryan is ready to move on.
From Ryan’s point of view, that makes sense. There are tax changes to pass and sign. Maybe health care to take up again. A budget to pass and a debt ceiling to raise. Ryan will need Trump for all of that, and it doesn’t make sense to kick a president while he’s down, said Molly Reynolds, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution.
“I think it’s pretty clear how weak Trump is, especially in a legislative context, and a specific statement from Ryan — even one that is strongly worded — doesn’t do much more to illustrate that,” she told The Fix earlier Monday.
Polling suggests Ryan may be making a politically safe move. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that 56 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s response to Charlottesville but finds no noticeable change in Trump’s approval ratings.
But when it comes to Trump’s approval rating staying the same after Charlottesville, that’s not saying much. At 37 percent, his approval rating is already the lowest in history for a president at this point.
Ryan’s decision to move on carries with it a giant risk that the president himself hasn’t. Trump’s condemnations of bigotry, delivered this Monday and last Monday, were scripted. They were written by his staff, and he delivered them after overwhelming criticism for staying silent.
When Trump was left to his own devices — specifically at a news conference supposedly on infrastructure last Tuesday — he took it all back.
Ryan has got to be asking himself: Which Trump is the real Trump? In more or less deciding to stand with the president on this, it sounds like he’s gambled it’s not the one who gave cover to white supremacists.