PARK CITY, Utah — They have been friends and political allies for many years, a trio of Wisconsin politicians who found their way onto the national stage. But on the matter of Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus cannot agree.
All three were in attendance at Mitt Romney’s off-the-record ideas summit here in the mountains of Utah over the weekend. In microcosm, Ryan, Priebus and Walker underscore the agonies and the choices of every Republican leader in this time of Trump.
Their separate appearances were a reminder of how Trump’s candidacy has divided the Republican Party and bedeviled its leaders. Their positions can be explained, though in a disjointed party, they all will find critics of the paths they’ve chosen.
Priebus is the advocate, the party chairman trying to downplay the divisions, assure a harmonious convention in Cleveland next month and help the party to emerge united for the fall campaign against Hillary Clinton. His course has been clear ever since Trump clinched the number of delegates needed for the nomination.
Ryan is the unenthusiastic Trump supporter. He was a temporary holdout who eventually came around and announced his support, only to have his position undermined by the candidate’s racially charged attack on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Trump’s attacks forced Ryan awkwardly to denounce the candidate without retracting his endorsement.
Walker is the symbol of Republican resistance, up to a point at least. Having been driven from the Republican nominating contest last fall by Trump’s power as a candidate, he has backed away from an earlier pledge to support the party’s nominee. Walker says that until Trump offers his apology or regrets for the attack on Curiel, he will continue his boycott.
Priebus has spent the past year trying to negotiate a peace between Trump and the Republican Party. At the beginning, one of his and other Republicans’ fears was that Trump might eventually bolt from the party and run as an independent in the general election.
Last September, Priebus traveled to Trump Tower and persuaded the candidate to sign a pledge to support the eventual nominee, as others in the field had done. After that, Priebus never worried about Trump leaving the party. Now he wants the other candidates who signed the pledge to make good on it.
During the primaries, he withstood Trump’s attacks on the nominating system as rigged, even though the rules were helping the New York billionaire. Then, as Trump plowed down one rival after another and swept the late-April primaries with a series of landslide victories, Priebus was faced with a different challenge. He needed to try to reconcile his party to the idea of Trump as nominee.
He rushed to declare Trump the presumptive nominee the night of the Indiana primary. Now he is running interference for Trump. When Romney told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer here that a Trump presidency would mean “trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny,” Priebus rushed to Trump’s defense. “Respect Mitt and differences but couldn’t disagree more,” he tweeted. “SCOTUS too important to lose for a generation. Let’s stop this and unify.”
Priebus told the group at the Romney gathering Saturday morning that Trump and the party will win in November, “with or without you,” according to someone in the room.
What Priebus has done as party chairman might be expected, or so was the case under all the old rules of politics. Trump played by new rules and won. If the chairman’s role is to put the institutional party in the best shape possible to wage a successful campaign, did he have any other choice short of resigning the chairmanship? Would that have been more honorable?
Walker has been resistant to Trump from the day he dropped out of the competition for the nomination. His decision to suspend his campaign last September came swiftly and with surprise, though he was struggling at the time. When he announced his decision, he said he was trying to help reduce the clutter of more than a dozen candidates “so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field.” He urged others to follow him to the sidelines, to no avail.
In the run-up to the Wisconsin primary in April, Walker helped lead the opposition to Trump. He endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz and put the state’s GOP apparatus behind the Texan’s candidacy. That united opposition helped Cruz defeat Trump, although the loss proved to be only a minor speed bump in Trump’s march to victory.
As a candidate, Walker had signed the pledge to support the nominee. Sometime after the Wisconsin primary, he said he would support Trump if the New Yorker became the nominee. But in the past week, he stepped back from that commitment.
“He’s not yet the nominee,” he told WKOW-TV. “Officially that won’t happen until the middle of July, and so for me that’s kind of the time frame that, in particular, I want to make sure he renounces what he says — at least in regards to this judge.” Walker told reporters here Thursday night that his position remains unchanged.
Ryan’s path has been far more tortured. Like other Republican leaders, he was quick to condemn Trump last winter for not denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists. In March, he delivered a speech to House interns calling on Republicans to be a party of ideas with a positive vision. Without naming Trump, Ryan drew a sharp contrast with the politics of anger that was fueling the front-runner.
When Trump became the presumptive nominee and others began to endorse, Ryan announced that he wasn’t yet ready to do so. He wanted to hear more about what Trump stood for. His declaration was viewed as a principled stand and reverberated across the party. In a matter of weeks, he wrote in Wisconsin’s Janesville Gazette that he would vote for Trump. His advisers said that was effectively an endorsement.
The next day, he had to denounce Trump for the comments about Curiel. As the outrage built, he declared that what Trump had said was “sort of like a textbook definition of a racist comment.” But he maintained his support for Trump, saying they have “more common ground on the policies of the day.”
A day later, Trump delivered his victory speech at the end of the Republican primaries. The agenda he emphasized bore little resemblance to the priorities Ryan began to offer this past week. If they had found true common ground, it was not evident on its face.
When Ryan appeared at the Romney gathering on Friday, he was hit with a series of tough questions. Moderator Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor and founder of an education news site, pressed him to explain his decision to endorse Trump and asked whether there was any line that Trump could cross that would force him to withdraw that support.
Ryan also drew a critical question about Trump’s character and campaign of insults from Meg Whitman, the Hewlett Packard chief executive, who compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini, a reference that caused consternation among some in the audience.
The attendees here included many Republican donors and fundraisers who are opposed to Trump but also sympathetic to Ryan. The speaker tried to explain his decision, noting that he was under pressure from his House members, many from districts where Trump is highly popular. His holdout put them in a potentially awkward position at home.
Each Republican leader will find ways to explain where they land on the question of yes or no on Trump for president. What seems justifiable today might be seen differently depending on whether Trump or Clinton has won the presidency. When those results are known, everyone will explain again why they stood where they stood — and will have to defend against the consequences.