It’s a safe assumption that one of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s least favorite parts of his job is to have to contradict President Trump.
Ryan (R-Wis.) has maintained he will speak out when he disagrees with Trump, but he also frequently goes out of his way to avoid those conflicts, such as claiming he hasn’t seen Trump’s latest controversial tweet. Ryan’s strategy makes sense; Trump is the person who signed Republicans’ tax bill into law in December, after all.
So it’s notable that Ryan went out of his way to criticize Trump's performance in Helsinki on Monday alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. Within hours of that stunning news conference, where Trump wouldn’t say he believes U.S. intelligence chiefs over Putin about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Ryan was out with this statement:
There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world. That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence. The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.
In short: Ryan thinks Trump got it wrong on Russia. Very wrong. Trump was too lenient on Putin, and too quick to equivocate on Russia’s hacking of Democrats and targeted social media advertising.
This isn’t the first time Ryan has contradicted Trump on Russia. Ryan has consistently maintained that Russia meddled in the U.S. election and that protections should be in place to prevent it from happening again. He’s defended the special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference from Trump’s criticism.
But rarely does Ryan initiate the criticism of Trump on Russia. Often it comes after Trump tweets something, then Ryan is asked about it at a news conference. On Monday, Ryan felt compelled to speak out of his own volition, hours after Trump spoke.
Ryan seems most concerned that Trump showed absolute unwillingness to hold Russia accountable for trying to influence the outcome of a sovereign nation’s election. This is all happening four months before another election in the United States that has voting officials and politicians worried about potential Russian hacking.
As Ryan points out in his statement, even Trump’s own allies in Congress — who have been willing to go to great lengths to defend Trump and undermine the special counsel’s Russia investigation — don’t question that Russia interfered in the U.S. election.
When House Republicans ended their investigation into Russia’s interference in April, they said they didn’t think Trump helped, and they made the controversial judgment that Russia did not interfere specifically to help Trump. But even they didn’t and don’t dispute that Russia tried to intervene in the U.S. election. (Intelligence experts have concluded Russia did it specifically to help Trump win.)
The timing of Ryan’s statement is notable, too.
The last time Ryan confronted Trump in such a clear manner was last summer, when Trump blamed “both sides” for white-supremacy-led violence in Charlottesville. Ryan wrote a Facebook post saying in part: "[W]e all need to make clear there is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis,” bolding the part about moral relativism.
But Ryan’s implicit condemnation of Trump’s actions came nine days after the protests in Charlottesville and six days after Trump blamed both sides. In a CNN town hall that evening, Ryan made it clear he wouldn’t do more beyond the 500-word tsk-tsk Facebook post, which didn’t even mention Trump by name. At the time, Mitt Romney and other GOP leaders had said the president should apologize.
By contrast, Ryan’s much-quicker statement on Russia left no nuance on where he stands: in total disagreement with Trump’s performance.
As Ryan prepares to leave politics at the end of this year, he’s given us no reason to think he’ll become the next GOP anti-Trumper. As I wrote in April when Ryan announced his retirement:
Despite all the reasons for Ryan to be frustrated at Trump, criticizing the president any more than he has to is just not his style. Peacemaking rather than bomb-tossing has been Ryan’s strategy, and so far it’s worked for him.
That still appears to be the case. And against that backdrop, it’s notable that Ryan said what he said Monday about Trump and Putin.
It’s clear that Ryan not only thinks Trump got it wrong on his approach to Putin, but Ryan is worried that Trump won’t stand up to Russia going forward. Very worried.