Late last week, Ryan was asked at a news conference whether scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt should remain in office.
“Frankly, I haven’t paid that close attention to it,” said the man who is second in line to the presidency. “I don’t know enough about what Pruitt has or has not done to give you a good comment.”
Even a casual consumer of news would be aware of Pruitt’s ethical tragicomedy, which has launched a thousand investigations: the Chick-fil-A application and the lobbyist condo, the soundproof phone booth and sirens, the Trump mattress, first-class and charter travel, raises for his pals, customized fountain pens, the Rose Bowl seats, Disneyland and his round-the-clock security detail helping him search for scented lotion from the Ritz-Carlton. How could the speaker be so unaware and so incurious?
For Ryan, and for Republicans generally, ignorance isn’t just bliss in the age of President Trump — it’s a means of survival. If they defend Trump, they look unprincipled or immoral. If they criticize Trump, the president attacks them. Professing — or feigning — ignorance is a way out.
The speaker averts his gaze so often from Trump’s mayhem that he is likely to get a stiff neck:
Trump congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin on his “election”?
“I don’t know the content of that conversation,” Ryan said.
Trump’s claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower?
“I didn’t see the interview.”
Trump’s conflicts of interest with his family business?
“I haven’t looked at the details of the arrangement.”
Trump’s call for lawmakers to investigate “fake news outlets.”
“I’m not familiar with the statement. Sorry. I’ve been — I was pretty busy.”
Trump’s attacks on NFL players over the national anthem?
“I haven’t seen all of his comments.”
FBI agents looking for information about the “Access Hollywood” tape when they raided Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s offices?
“I didn’t even read the article.”
Trump’s strained call with the Australian prime minister?
“Don’t know the content of the call.”
Trump threatening to pull FEMA from Puerto Rico after the hurricane?
“I’m a little busy today. I haven’t been looking at Twitter.”
Ryan will retire in January, but it seems he checked out around mid-2015, when Trump launched his campaign. One can imagine how history might have turned out differently if previous leaders had done the same: Caesar, instead of crossing the Rubicon, saying, “I haven’t looked at the details of the arrangement”; or Dwight Eisenhower, instead of launching D-Day, telling his generals, “I’m a little busy today. I haven’t been looking at maps.”
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Ryan’s counterpart in the Senate, has offered similar excuses when asked about Trump pardoning himself (“I don’t know”), launching a deportation force (“I haven’t heard”) or trying to oust special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (“I’m unaware”). But Ryan is the king of innocence. A transcript of McConnell’s Q&A’s since early 2015 contains 47 instances of “I don’t know.” A comparable Ryan transcript contains 99.
Ryan had attempted ignorance before Trump (“I haven’t read the autopsy of the RNC,” he said in 2013), but he honed his know-nothing skills during the 2016 campaign when asked about racism after a Trump speech (“I haven’t seen it or read it”); Trump moving to revoke the credentials of Post journalists and others (“I don’t know a whole lot about it”); and Mitt Romney criticizing Trump’s character (“I haven’t seen the content of the speech”).
Since then, Ryan’s ignorance has extended to the White House physician’s office, Michael Flynn’s foreign payments, terrorism-surveillance legislation, White House leaks and more. Ryan lacked the knowledge to say how sexual-misconduct allegations against then-Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore differed from those against Trump (“I haven’t spent my time reviewing the difference”) or why Trump resisted funding a children’s health-care program (“I didn’t see what he wrote”).
He demurred on Trump ending protection for Nicaraguans in the United States because “I haven’t looked at it closely enough.”
He punted on Trump slashing funding for the State Department because “You know, honestly, I haven’t looked at the budget functions.”
He begged off on Trump’s family-leave proposal because “I confess I haven’t had a chance to look at it.”
As it happens, Ryan’s ignorance of Pruitt is long-standing. Asked in April about the matter, Ryan replied: “I don’t know the deep background on the issues surrounding him.” Two months later, the speaker is no wiser. This suggests the real issue is not that Ryan doesn’t know but that he doesn’t want to know.