After two years of Paul Ryan actively trying not to criticize President Trump, the retired former House speaker is now saying things like this about the president: “We’ve gotten so numbed by it all. Not in government, but where we live our lives, we have a responsibility to try and rebuild. Don’t call a woman a ‘horse face.’ Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t cheat on anything. Be a good person. Set a good example.”
That was Ryan in an interview with author Tim Alberta, for Alberta’s new book about Trump’s takeover of the GOP, “American Carnage.”
We already knew what Ryan really felt about Trump. During the campaign, he accused Trump of saying things that are “the textbook definition of racism.” He abandoned Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out a month before the election, urging his colleagues in Congress to do the same.
But it’s still unusual to hear Ryan admonish Trump in public, especially in such frank language. (Trump “didn’t know anything about government,” Ryan says in the book.) And it raises the question: What does Ryan get out of being honest now?
A tweetstorm from Trump is what he got — allowing Trump to throw mud on Ryan without Ryan really having a platform anymore to fight back.
Trump continued to hammer Ryan in front of reporters Friday.
Save Ryan’s former 2012 presidential running mate, Mitt Romney, no one in Congress is taking the opportunity to echo Ryan. Which underscores: If Ryan wanted to fight back against the Trumpification of the Republican Party, he’s a little late. He abruptly retired from the speakership and Congress in 2018 and has been out of the spotlight since.
During his leadership, he turned off never-Trumpers who were hoping Ryan might be a voice of conscience within the Republican Party. Instead, Ryan tried to make peace with Trump while, he says in the book, steering him from making bad decisions. Ryan got a tax bill out of it and an Obamacare repeal bill passed through the House (even though it never made it through the Senate). “Don’t expect Ryan to be the GOP’s next anti-Trumper,” I wrote as he retired. I was largely right — until, for some reason, now.
Ryan must have known the reaction his comments would elicit from Trump. Ryan had a front-row seat to how Trump went after and assured the destruction of any Republican who tried to speak out against him. A sitting congressman, Mark Sanford, lost his job in large part for being anti-Trump. Others very nearly lost their primaries. Still others retired first, then spoke out against Trump. Trump still occasionally takes shots at the late senator John McCain, who regularly criticized Trump’s foreign policy.
Ryan would try to split the difference between pro-Trumpers and the never-Trumpers in the Republican Party by saying he disagreed with things Trump said or did.
Now, though, he’s openly chatting about how he disliked Trump as a leader, as a person. In the process, he’s turning off the Trumpers, who at least let him leave Congress on amiable terms.
The Republicans still in Congress have adapted to survive. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, facing reelection next year in pro-Trump Kentucky, is embracing Trump in ways he might not have a few years back. Same with Trump-critic-turned-Trump-cheerleader Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, who is on the ballot in 2020 in South Carolina. There is no room for any daylight between Trump and Republicans in Congress anymore, and these two senators epitomize that.
Ryan did the same as speaker, but he ultimately chose to leave rather than keep playing what must be an exhausting game. After a year out of the spotlight, he’s putting himself on record saying that Republicans have been doing it wrong.
Which suggests that while he was in power, he was doing it wrong, too. So why speak out now?