House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has a complex relationship with President Trump. He's more or less settled into a tri-pronged approach: Publicly support the president as much as possible, publicly disagree with the president only when he has to and stay out of drama as much as he can.
So it was notable to hear Ryan take another tone entirely Thursday at a charity dinner, in a way that directly inserted himself into a story about him and the president: making fun of Trump. Some of Ryan's jokes:
“I don’t think I’ve seen this many New York liberals, this many Wall Street CEOs in one room since my last visit to the White House.”
“I know last year that Donald Trump offended some people [at this dinner]. I know how his comments, according to critics, went too far. Some said it was unbecoming of a public figure, and they said his comments were offensive. Well, thank God, he's learned his lesson.”
It was all in good fun at Thursday's Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York, where Ryan was the keynote speaker, and where, as the Associated Press's Steve Peoples pointed out, the program of the event encourages speakers to “poke fun at a political issue, an opponent, or themselves.”
Ryan also made fun of Democrats (“I know why [Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)] has been so hard on President Trump. It’s not ideological; Chuck is just mad he lost his top donor.”), the Catholic church and himself (“Every afternoon former Speaker John Boehner calls me up, not to give advice, just to laugh").
Trump and his administration, though, were the main focus of his jokes:
“I'm now second in line of succession since Steve Bannon has resigned.”
“The press absolutely misunderstands and never records the big accomplishments of the White House. Look at all the jobs the president has created, just among the White House staff!”
“Breitbart will lead with: 'Ryan slams the president among liberal elites.' New York Times will report: 'Ryan defends president in a state Hillary won.' And the president will tweet: '300,000 at Al Smith dinner cheer mention of my name.'”
Ryan learned during the campaign that Trump doesn't tolerate criticism or perceived slights. Since Ryan endorsed Trump through Trump getting elected, Ryan denounced or disagreed with the president on average once every week and a half. When Ryan said he wouldn't actively support the president, Trump declared war on him and congressional Republicans.
Both have said that the campaign is water under the bridge. Ryan continues to support the president on passing tax reform and repealing the Affordable Care Act, while speaking out when he doesn't agree with him, most notably after the president compared neo-Nazi marchers to counterprotesters in Charlottesville in August. “There is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis,” Ryan said in a Facebook post.
But Ryan's Al Smith speech also comes hours after former president George W. Bush delivered an unmistakable takedown of Trumpism. And Bush's speech came days after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used his acceptance speech for a prestigious award to slam the president's foreign policy as “half-baked spurious nationalism.” McCain's speech came a few weeks after retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) called the White House an “adult day care” and accused Trump of being incompetent enough to start “World War III.” Corker's attacks came a few months after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote a book that blames his party for the rise of Trump.
For whatever reason, right now a growing number Republicans feel like they can speak their mind about the president, even if they risk being at the end of a tweetstorm the next day. (Or, in Flake's case, having the president and his allies threaten to unseat him.)
Ryan's remarks were in no way intended to attack the president. He was making jokes at a charity dinner that practically requires jokes about the president be made.
But jokes are funny when there's a hint of truth to them. Reporters trying to pin down politicians on Trump's latest controversy can especially appreciate this one from Ryan: “Every morning I wake up in my office and I scroll through Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend I didn’t see later on.”